SUNSET OVER SOHO (1943)
1943 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1988 Sphere paperback.
"Of course, I can see the point of you telling me this part of the yarn, ma'am, although, at first sight, it wouldn't seem to get us anywhere," said Pirberry. "You want to make clear, I take it, that Mr. Harben was telling the truth some of the time. I suppose the tale about being hit over the head, and all that stuff about the dream and then waking up in an open boat and going to the Canary Islands and bringing back those women, and so on, might have been partly true, too."
"Or wholly true; or, of course, not true at all," said Mrs. Bradley.
It's the height of the Second World War, and Mrs. Bradley is working overtime as a doctor at a rest shelter for air raid casualties and displaced persons. With all the present mortality around them, the staff hardly needs another dead body, yet they find one in the form of a two-year old corpse, packed into a makeshift coffin and clothed in a now tattered dressing gown. The dead man's identity and appearance in the shelter are a mystery; the coffin/crate wasn't noticed in the basement room on the previous day. Mrs. Bradley realizes that the story really begins in the days before the war, and confides her tale to Detective Inspector Pirberry.
David Harben, a young novelist and acquaintance of Mrs. Bradley, spends his summers writing and boating off England's coast. One dark night a tap at the porthole window reveals a visitor to David's tub: a beautiful woman whose first words to David are "I've killed him." The boat is moored off the beach near some houses, and upon the woman's request that David investigate, the writer enters the house and discovers the dead man on the floor. David returns to the boat, hours pass, and when they next visit the house, the body has disappeared. The mysterious woman then leaves David by taking his boat, and when David reclaims it down river, the woman is nowhere to be found. That's when the attempts on David's life begin.
While David ponders these events, two Dominican nuns and their collection of five orphaned boys enter his life. Mrs. Bradley takes this extended family into her beach house, but during another investigation of the dead man's house, David disappears. The sea recurs throughout this story, and Mrs. Bradley collects such clues as a secretive sailing flag, a talkative parrot, a water-filled cellar, sinister Spaniards, and stories of naval heroics and alluring water-nymphs, clues which help her make sense of this tangled plot.
I'll begin my review of this challenging book with the explanation that my three-star rating--generally indicating a solid, enjoyable, recommended read--is in this instance a rating arrived at by adding and averaging Sunset Over Soho's storytelling accomplishments and shortcomings. Parts of this book I found first-rate; other parts I found barely readable. It also happens to be truly unique from other Gladys Mitchell stories on a number of points: tone, structure, setting, and narrative style are all noteworthy and admirably executed (if not always successful). Each element bears examination, and I'll tackle them in turn.
Tone -- Deadpan and determined, Mrs. Bradley sees to her duties and makes herself useful as the bombs overhead continue to fall. The book adopts a similar business-first attitude; there is little time for the high-spirited comedy that can be evidenced in earlier (The Saltmarsh Murders, e.g.) or later (The Devil's Elbow) tales. The story allows for occasional color and relaxes at certain times, but the stakes are higher here. David Harben is not a ridiculous or comic narrator in the tradition of Noel Wells or George Jeffries; his predicament is grave, and it disturbs his dreams and threatens his life. Later in the book, David and a nun navigate the boat to Dunkirk, where they silently work around the clock as a rescue and salvage craft to save the wounded and sea-tossed Allied sailors. This is a serious and selfless act, and it adds to the character of David, a murder suspect on land, a gravitas rarely found in light mystery books.
Structure -- This is one of Sunset Over Soho's most intriguing elements. The book is divided into seven sections, each one aptly named ("Rest Centre;" "Sleuth's Alchemy"). Because the book alternates between present and past scenes, and jumps storylines from Mrs. Bradley's investigations to David Harben's adventures, the section and chapter headings become necessary tools with which the reader can orient him- or herself. And then there are structural pitfalls of which the reader must be wary. Most of the past incidents are capped with a brief sequence where Mrs. Bradley and D.I. Pirberry comment on the story thus far; therefore Mrs Bradley is relating her version of David's tale to the inspector. This becomes tricky when, in one chapter, the story of David's fate as he spent months at sea is recounted. Then in the following chapter, we backtrack and watch Mrs. Bradley as she looks into David's disappearance. But keep this in mind: David's story of his sea voyage was told to Mrs. Bradley by David, who may not be telling her the truth. By the end, it's still comprehensible, but just barely. Also, owing greatly to structure, this is not really a fair-play puzzle. The reader has to allow the characters to give up the story pieces in their own time.
Setting -- The setting is unique and vividly drawn: war-torn London during the Blitz. I can't imagine what it felt like to write during such a grim and uncertain time, or to write about the frightening things that are happening around you. This novel also contains two excellently rendered seafaring stories. The first relates David's trials at sea when he's knocked unconscious and left for dead on his tub, which has drifted out into the ocean. His rescue and attempts to return to the now mined and patrolled coast of England make for a thrilling and absorbing tale. The second account follows the action on his volunteer rescue boat at Dunkirk. I found these naval adventures quite entertaining, and surprisingly they worked well to move the story along and add detail to the rather enigmatic figure of David Harben. Finally, the nightly visits to that strange, silent house where the dead man was found take on the resonance of a fever dream. There's a feeling of dread, the sense that this house contains souls if you only know where to look.
Style -- Here's another barrier to light reading. Some (not all) of the narrative style here is terribly baroque; the first section was by far the most troublesome for me. Entire paragraphs are composed of sentences that don't manage to convey any meaning. Here's an example from page 11, suggesting that two (unnamed) people work well together: "their characters showed some amazing resemblances as well as sharp differences. But even the differences were not divergent in their nature; they were co-operative, and the resemblances never had the unfortunate effect of producing competition, jealousy or any of the lesser and meaner vices, but merely enhanced and deepened the first impression of solidarity of purpose and essential comradeship of these two people so fortunately in juxtaposition." The writing does become more soluble, but the book never matches the enjoyment of Mitchell's four- and five-star work. Narrative style definitely contributes to the book's difficulty.
To sum up, here's what I liked most about Sunset Over Soho: an imaginative story (a Mitchell hallmark), a darker-than-average central character, well-done moments of adventure, a unique setting, and an unconventional nonlinear structure. Here's what I don't like: the confusion caused by said unconventional nonlinear structure, an occasionally impenetrable prose style, the relative lack of humor, and clues and theories that only hold meaning for Mrs. Bradley. And this is what I admire: an endlessly resourceful writer who adapted to her times, constantly tried new story and structure ideas, and gave her appreciative readers a library full of stories--celebrated masterpieces, interesting failures, and everything in between.