SHADES OF DARKNESS (1970)
1970 Michael Joseph.
"All right, sir?" asked Young Ben, as they made their way to the car.
"Yes, Ben, so far, so good, but I'm glad you were handy. I fancy the gentleman had a knife concealed in his stocking."
"Funny place to keep a knife, sir. I thought that was only the fashion with Spanish ladies and Highland gentlemen."
"I spoke metaphorically, Ben."
Timothy Herring and wife Alison are scouting locations for a Mr. Glanvilliers Ryanston, a movie producer. On his list of sites wanted are a castle, a church, a stone bridge, a folly, and a manor house. Timothy thinks he can fill some or all of the requests through negotiations with the eccentric Leigh-Fifields. Annabel Leigh, a young woman and ex-student of Alison's, is the chosen representative as dour Aunt Wulfilda, batty Aunt Waltruda, and benign Uncle Ordulf prove less approachable. The family also seems a bit preoccupied, as Timothy spots them carrying out a curiously abridged Black Mass and paying tribute to a plaster bust of a chap named Erik.
Negotiations barely get underway before more strange things occur: the bricked-up entry to Castell Foel is secretly demolished; a reclining skeleton on a kitchen floor is glimpsed through a window; a borzoi goes missing; moods change and talks stall. Staying with the school headmistress, Alison's old employer Miss Pomfret-Brown, news comes in that one of the students, a girl named Jennifer Purlieu, has disappeared. As she is cousin to Annabel Leigh -- and as Annabel managed to visit the school moments before Jennifer vanished -- Timothy decides to hunt for the girl. Knowing there's a priest's hole built in to Fivefield Hall, he sets out with purpose. There is indeed a body in the hiding place, but it belongs to someone much older than Jennifer.
The fifth entry involving historic building preserver Timothy Herring is a particularly weak one, despite its busyness of plot. The problem is that the plot never coheres into a compelling story, and the reader is curiously distanced from the characters and proceedings. It doesn't help that, by tale's end, much of Timothy's theorizing proves to be fanciful and groundless. What little mystery there is could be cleared up with knowledge of a couple facts. The result is not a dazzling display of misdirection but a tangle of uninteresting, unsubstantial threads.
Two other transgressions of the mystery form reside here, the latter one borderline criminal. First, Timothy and Alison spend far too much time quoting prose and verse at one another, the follower usually capping the leader's start. Most of the first chapter is given over to compartmentalizing Wodehouse's producer characters (by way of describing their own producer, Ryanston). A laborious exercise, and I'm a card-carrying P.G. Wodehouse fan myself! Second, Gladys Mitchell allows her pseudonym some very sloppy plotting: in Late and Cold (1967), readers are expected to accept that a potential weapon gets moved around by a poltergeist. Now in Shades of Darkness, a body is unearthed and, by story's end, that body is neither identified nor its presence explained. The matter isn't forgotten, it's simply shrugged off and dismissed, in a "we may never know what happened" style. Singularly unsatisfying, I'm sorry to report that Shades of Darkness can't hold a candle to Gladys Mitchell's best works.