THE RISING OF THE MOON (1945)
1945 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1972 Tom Stacey, 1984 St. Martin's Press (U.S.), 1985 Hogarth Press, 1986 Chivers Large Print, 1996 Virago trade paperback.
Keith's holiday lasted until the following Monday morning. There seemed to be no more news, and, except that the streets and alleys were absolutely empty by eight o'clock except for stray cats and one or two people who pretended not to care about the murders, the life of our town went on as usual. Children were forbidden to play down by the canal, but, on the whole, they took no notice, and the boys had a game called 'Murderers' which frightened the girls and led to some quarrels between parents and ended in some of the boys getting into trouble with their fathers.
The narrator of this tale is Master Simon Innes, who spends a memorable spring investigating events occurring in his sleepy countryside village, with his brother Keith at his side. Village life, like its nearby river, is quiet and lazy, but the Innes brothers keep busy: they routinely inspect the contents of an eccentric lady's antique/junk shop; they do their best to avoid the unfriendly rag-and-bone man; and on occasion, when pressed into service by their sister-in-law, they take their toddler nephew out for a stroll. The arrival of a travelling circus on Easter weekend promises excitement, and it brings just that, but in an unexpected form: the body of a woman tight-rope walker is found on the circus grounds. She appears to have been mutilated the previous night, when the moon shone full.
The police arrest a circus performer who had a relationship with the victim, but he is released when a second woman--a barmaid at the local public house, the Pigeons--is murdered. The Innes brothers do some snooping about, and discover that both women were robbed after they were set upon. A third body is found, and Simon and Keith are dismayed and alarmed when they realize that their adult brother Jack, who acts as guardian to the boys, is mysteriously absent from the house on that last moonlit night. Furthermore, Jack's snob's knife is missing from his tool box, and he has begun acting in a strange manner.
To clear their brother's name, Keith and Simon continue to investigate, and in so doing, make the acquaintance of a peculiar elderly lady named Mrs. Bradley. From that point on, the Innes boys take Mrs. Bradley into their confidence (and, eventually, the old detective shares secrets with the boys), and the village prepares itself for the onset of another full moon. Is a Jack-the-Ripper lunatic at work, or do the murders have a more monetary motive? The answer may lie somewhere in the shadows between.
Having recently read my 33rd Mrs. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley mystery book--the half-point number of Gladys Mitchell's 66 Dame Beatrice novels--I thought it would be fitting to revisit the very first Mitchell title I read, The Rising of the Moon. I was fortunate to have stumbled upon a truly great reading experience the first time out; a second reading three years later reaffirmed and strengthened my appreciation for this understated, atmospheric book. (After Moon, I acquired a copy of The Saltmarsh Murders, and that earlier story--a farcical fair-play mystery/comedy narrated by a bumbling curate--was such a departure from, and no less of a success than, Moon that I knew I had to read everything from this author that I could collect.)
A small handful of Gladys Mitchell's books carry a tone, or a life, that is truly unique and separates the work from its predecessors. I'm trying to describe the quality that all great fiction writers aspire to, that ability to immerse the reader into a vivid world, one that is created through words on the page. It goes beyond mere storytelling or puzzle-building; the author actively engages the reader's imagination, and to such an extent that the printed word transforms into a truly convincing tableau, carrying its own singular atmosphere, tone, and feel. Previously, Sunset over Soho (1943) uniquely captured the unreality of ground-level Britain at war. The book set a dreamy (as in, a suspension of time) pace to its events, and in its imagery (half-lit houses, displaced nuns) the commonplace sits beside the fantastic. The result was a war story that only dealt peripherally with the war. Two years later, Miss Mitchell created a small tour-de-force in Moon, a book that shows considerable narrative ingenuity and restraint.
I contend that The Rising of the Moon is Gladys Mitchell's greatest stylistic achievement: she sets out to create a world filtered through the eyes of her thirteen-year old narrator, Simon Innes, and to that end she succeeds on every page. It's not just a perspective, it's an entire ideology that Miss Mitchell offers in her young protagonist. Simon and Keith have scruples; they are cunning and resourceful, in the best meaning of those words; they have their own particular code of honor. They also have a thorough understanding of how their world operates (parental laws; omissions which are not the same as lies), and Simon's subdued narrative prose bolsters this point. Here, for example, is a throwaway anecdote detailing the procedure for giving toddler Tom a forbidden piece of chewing gum:
He was not really allowed to have it, so, of course, he loved it. We had trained him very carefully not to swallow it, so I am sure it could not have hurt him. We had taught him to make pennies with it when he had chewed all the flavour out, and he thought this was a necessary part of having chewing gum, and loved to press a coin on to the mess he took out of his mouth, and watch the pattern come. When he was tired of playing with the gum, Keith would take it away, and we would pretend to help him look for it. He would soon forget what we were supposed to be looking for, particularly when he got a little piece of cheese to eat. Cheese was another thing he was not allowed to have, but it never seemed to upset him. We had taught him to call it Cow, which was a word he could easily say, and one which conveyed nothing to June. She was rather a stupid woman, and did not understand Tom, and never would.
The Rising of the Moon is filled with careful, believable details. Some readers may wish the narrator to stay away from such off-topic digressions, but in truth, the village murder investigation remains at the center, which is where such exotic news would surely be placed in a village boy's world. Detailed observations on everyday life only serve to make this story more vivid. Another great touch: the inclusion of a complete circus poster, with all of its patter ("Crowned Heads Have Seen It. Unknown Multitudes Have Seen It. Come and See for Yourself the Riotous Fantasy of Sublime Terror and Beauty.") lovingly recreated. Such a poster, offering the unbelieveable claims of the circus, would be an unforgettable tract to a thirteen-year old boy. Miss Mitchell observes and offers these details with unerring consistency. Simon and Keith operate on their own young-adult logic, which does not always run parallel with that of their elders' (e.g., the boys decide it's best to fake evidence to establish Jack's innocence). However, such behavior is always truthful to the character of the participants, and such insight is commendable in its author.
As fellow Mitchell enthusiast Nicholas Fuller rightly points out, the plot of The Rising of the Moon is at times a bit muddled. A few threads are left dangling in typical Mitchell fashion, but, in my opinion, their presence doesn't hamper the book's considerable charms. Similar plotting cul-de-sacs can be found in some of Mitchell's best and busiest: consider (until your brain begins to hurt) the tangled webs spun in Death and the Maiden, Sunset over Soho, or Here Comes a Chopper. Some information given in Moon's final pages muddies the waters of plot a bit, but it hardly detracts from the book's ending. And what an ending: the full moon low in the sky, the village still and silent, and Keith and Simon Innes hurrying to keep an assignation with a murderer...
Perhaps I am overly sentimental about this particular type of coming-of-age story. The notion of adolescent loss of innocence, and the journey from boyhood to a sober, dimmer adulthood while confronting murder and mortality strikes a strong chord with me. It has obviously done so with other writers as well: Davis Grubb's The Night of the Hunter, Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Stephen King's It all play variations on this theme. With The Rising of the Moon, Gladys Mitchell beats the boys at their own game. And does it first. And, in my opinion, does it best.