THE CROAKING RAVEN (1966)
1966 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1985 Severn House.
The police, mindful of her eminence and her connections with Gavin and with the Home Office, had handled Dame Beatrice delicately. They did not expect to obtain any useful information from her, and were surprised to discover that she had known the dead man as a patient.
"All in all," said Dame Beatrice, when the police had gone and the body had been removed for a post-mortem examination of a more exhaustive kind than had been possible in the priest's hole, "a disturbing yet remarkably dull day."
As a birthday present to her godson Hamish for the summer, Dame Beatrice agrees to rent and reside at a manor house built on the grounds of a Norman castle. The psychoanalyst has an interest in the history of the family residing at Ravens Dysey, as Eustace Dysey was once her patient in the years after the war. Dame Beatrice settles in with Hamish and his mother and father, secretary Laura and police inspector Robert Gavin. While opening the castle to the public, they soon see that many of the visitors are interested in learning more details about the death of patriarch Thomas Dysey, whose body was found at the base of one of the castle's tower walls. Dame Beatrice begins to gather facts about the older Dysey's demise, but runs into opposition from the rest of his family: Thomas' wife Henrietta and brother Cyril are both cagey and at times hostile to discuss the accident. To complicate matters, the parentage of the amiable young man Henry (who contends that Cyril is his uncle) and the contribution of a woman cyclist who signs the castle's visitor book as "Henrietta Dysey" are uncertain and suspicious.
Strange events occur on the days when the castle is open to the public: kitchen food goes missing and whistling is heard on the grounds where visitors should not be. After a shadowy intruder disappears one night, an investigation yields the discovery of a secret passage leading to a priest's hole. Upon examination, the tenants find the body of Eustace Dysey hidden away within the walls of the castle. Dame Beatrice looks to the house's library and the family biography for clues to the motive for murdering the two brothers, and finds a legend of a Jesuit treasure hoard rumored to be on the premises. She must also consider whether the exiled black sheep son Bonamy Dysey has played a role in the tragedy, and warns the village vicar that both his life and livelihood may be at stake. After much hypothesizing over Dysey family lineage, the criminal makes one more visit to the priest's hole, this time with fatal results to him- (or her-) self.
I have only encountered two Gladys Mitchell titles where the story told was so uncompelling that I gave up before finishing it, abandoning each about 40 pages before the book's end. The Malcolm Torrie-penned title Shades of Darkness was one of them; The Croaking Raven proved to be the other. (These are in contrast to the author's very best work, where I've reread each of a dozen titles with pleasure three, four or even five times.) What faults and shortcomings make this particular book so unpalatable? Ironically, some of the weaknesses are to be found in much of Gladys Mitchell's titles after 1960: the victims and their demises remain off-stage, removed from the reader so no immediacy, suspense or sympathy is felt. The mystery is not really presented in a fair-play style, with offered clues leading cleverly to one conclusion. Instead, Dame Beatrice's later career modus operandi involves endless speculation about possible criminal permutations before one of them is proven to be correct (often without evidential weight built by the plot but through the culprit's confession). In other titles, these structurally weak choices are bolstered by the author's usually vivid evocation of setting and good-natured narrative sweep. My second attempt at finishing The Croaking Raven, however, caught me floundering at exactly the same spot, and it was mere determination and sense of duty (and not, sadly, the remotest interest in this story or its outcome) that pushed me through to the end.
Perhaps the frustration I have is also tied to the wonderful opportunities provided here that Miss Mitchell, if writing this a few decades earlier, would have recognized and shaped to great and fun effect. A Norman castle with secret passages and eccentric owners has the potential to be a truly memorable setting for an atmospheric mystery. But this tale gets weighted down with countless conversations theorizing about the Dysey family history, making it difficult to generate interest in the genealogy to solve the deaths of characters we never knew. Likewise, Jonathan Bradley and his wife Deborah Cloud (introduced in the superior Laurels Are Poison) are called in to help with the castle investigation, but they have no personalities or actions to add to the story. We are told they arrive, do as Dame Beatrice requests, and leave, hardly uttering a word.
This book also contains some continuity problems: the town doctor is alternately called Biggs or Binns, depending on the chapter. I'm also unable to comprehend by the end what plan the murderer truly had in mind and whether the fabled Raven's Hoard was really a motive and if it even exists — we're told repeatedly that the castle itself is quite worthless. More than sloppiness, though, it's The Croaking Raven's ineffectual storytelling that (I'm glad to say) I find so rare in the author's other work: choosing not to invest the narrative with character and life but instead unfolding it with a minimum of imagination and immediacy. With more than 70 mystery novels to her credit, Gladys Mitchell certainly deserves the latitude to deliver a weak title, but I am happy to report — having read them all — that the great and the very good far outweigh the poor and unreadable.