THE DEVIL AT SAXON WALL (1935)
1935 Grayson & Grayson. Reprinted 1939 Penguin Paperback; 2014 Vintage Press; 2014 Thomas & Mercer (U.S.).
Cover scan provided by Bevis Benneworth.
There was a sharp pain which seemed to flash like a shining sword before his eyes; then a sensation of blackness and of falling.
The next thing he knew was that he was in bed in his own cottage, the victim of a most devitalising headache, with the doctor in half-reproachful, half-humorous attendance on him, and Mrs. Bradley, grinning like an alligator and dressed like a macaw, sitting in his best armchair.
The village of Saxon Wall is ugly, harsh, and rather sinister, and its inhabitants share these traits. This is a place (and a people) of high superstition and belief in pagan gods and ways, where curses, demons and blood sacrifices are as basic (and base) as the earth and sky. Constance Middleton dislikes the village the moment she moves to Neot House with her husband, and her alienation intensifies when her spouse exhibits increasingly strange behavior. While recovering after the birth of her first child, Constance dies under mysterious circumstances, and her husband succumbs during an operation soon thereafter. The Middleton baby is sent away and Neot House becomes vacant.
Nearly a decade later, fiction writer Hannibal Jones retires to Saxon Wall in hopes that the change of surroundings will reinvigorate his writing and his life. Through other villagers, including his housekeeper, a dull-faced woman named Passion, he learns of the Middletons' fates, and that a relative of theirs is arriving to claim Neot House. Jones keeps busy studying the villagers and their various eccentricities. In Saxon Wall, for instance, lives Mrs. Fluke, a frightening old lady (and estranged mother of Mrs. Passion) with rumored black magic powers; the village vicar, Hallam, who's at war with the pagan townfolk over religion and the water supply; Miss Phoebe and Miss Sophie, sisters living with their goat, Gerald, who was "permitted the run of the house, and was taken out for exercise and on shopping expeditions;" and Mr. and Mrs. Tebbutt, who appear to Jones to be holding a piece of the Middleton puzzle, but are customarily tight-lipped. Many of the villagers are fearful and reverent of Hannibal Jones due to his imposing physique; he resembles the long thin man, a spirit said to haunt the hills of Godrun Down.
The village is in the midst of a devastating drought, and people are starting to feel murderous as the vicar refuses to pray for rain on their behalf. The church water well receives a plague of dead frogs, a doorway is adorned with bloodied feathers, and eventually mysterious cloven hoofmarks appear on the ground and religious statues are displaced and carted around inside a wheelbarrow by a profane mob. Hannibal Jones learns that the babies born nine years ago to Mrs. Passion, Constance Middleton, and a simple-minded woman named Mrs. Pike may be a sharing a big secret, and when Jones (and the reader) finally untangles this story, a greater mystery presents itself: a man's body is discovered at Neot House.
The Devil at Saxon Wall is one of Gladys Mitchell's most ambitious tales, offering up a busy and complicated plotline and vivid, memorably strange characters. The creation of this primal, so earthen as to be almost primordial community meets with great success, comparable to the mad village found in The Saltmarsh Murders and the sleepy, twilit town in The Rising of the Moon. Less successful, in my opinion, is the course on which the twisty, detail-labored plot runs. Much of the book's first half concerns itself with the parentage of three babies born nine years previously, a puzzle that relates only incidentally to the Middleton murders. Added to this, any information offered by the townfolk is often indirect and abstruse. Mrs. Bradley herself states that the natives "were incapable of making straight-forward statements...even their lies were elliptical." This trait lends flavor to characterization and tone, but it tends to hamper, if not defeat, the efforts of the fair-play mystery reader.
Still, this is an entertaining, fast-paced story that has grand touches of (literally) natural scope: the parched earth, the cloudless, dry sky, and the pack of villagers caught in between. The apocalyptic downpour brought forth in the book's final lines is inevitable and satisfying, almost cleansing; it's not coincidental that Miss Mitchell chose to end a book rife with pagan thoughts and deeds with the following invocation:
None of them had seen such rain. It fell like an avenging cataract of fury, relentless, unceasing, terrifyingly noisy and triumphant; they stood there listening to it, awe-stricken in the face of the terrible mercy of God.
This is also one of a small number of books to contain a helpful -- and in this case necessary -- appendix chapter detailing notes from Mrs. Bradley's casebook. The observations found here are fascinating additions to the book proper, illumining particular characters ("Hallam," "Mrs. Tebbutt's Fears"), items ("goats," "speech"), and motives ("extraordinarily accommodating behaviour of the Chief Constable"). Notebook entries can also be found in the books The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop, The Saltmarsh Murders, and Death at the Opera, where they're used to excellent effect. I wish more Mitchell titles offered this tidy and informative addendum.