THE WHISPERING KNIGHTS (1980)
1980 Michael Joseph.
They loomed, black and menacing, the silent guardians of an age which for countless centuries had passed from men's minds and which could never, even with all the resources of modern scholarship and technology, be revived and recreated. The stones by day had been grey and thin and had born evidence of the five feet of peat which had deposited itself around them until it was dug out when the now-non-existent cairn had been excavated to reveal the small passage-grave inside the stone circle.
Now, however, in the shifting, treacherous moonlight, the stones looked black, seeming taller and heavier than by day, and the pattern they made seemed more meaningful and sinister, the impression being that of tall warriors, hooded, cloaked and watchful, keeping menacing guard and ward, not over the little grave, sufficiently guarded by the tall and lonely monolith which stood nearest to it, but over something which was going on in the stone circle, something so pagan and yet so holy that even the guardians kept themselves hooded in the presence of those mysterious rites.
Practically everyone in the travelling party assumes that formidable Home Office psychoanalyst Dame Beatrice Bradley is accompanying the group to keep an eye on one of its members. Everyone is under that assumption, perhaps, except for Dame Beatrice herself. The party--gathered and led by Professor Q. X. Owen--will tour the prehistoric stone circles of Northern England. Professor Owen has added his cousin Catherine, an acerbic college student named Stewart, a high-spirited (and highly superstitious) young woman named Capella, and two nuns to the mix. Along with Dame B. and Laura, a couple named Lionel and Clarissa--claiming they're husband and wife but rarely acting like it--round out the group.
Dame Beatrice takes an interest in fanciful Capella, whose childhood visit to Oxfordshire's Rollright Stones captured her imagination with the legend of the Whispering Knights. She also finds the claims of the younger nun intriguing: Sister Veronica has spotted an additional presence following the group, hiding behind the stones. When one respondent's answers are stolen after a rainy evening's round of the Truth Game, the old detective is comforted to know that the group's members are soon destined to go their separate ways. But an evening visit to a stone circle in Callanish heralds a disquieting discovery: Capella finds the body of a woman on the ground. The victim is unknown and her identity remains a mystery, though the next surprise is even harder to dismiss. This time Catherine Owen is found, murdered in the same manner of the earlier woman. Her body lies among the Rollright Stones, and the watchful Knights refuse to speak of what they have witnessed.
If you are a fan of Gladys Mitchell’s fiction — and not everyone applies — then you should find her books eminently re-readable. For me, the prose of a Mrs. Bradley mystery is an extremely comfortable thing: the stories may be familiar but still offer pleasure in the telling; the narrative sweep keeps the plot active and engaging; and Miss Mitchell’s instinctive skills as an author make even her lesser efforts highly readable. My most recent visit to The Whispering Knights was also my third. And even though I felt on each reading that I was not experiencing one of the author’s best, the story, setting, and “Mitchell sweep” still kept me turning pages.
Ironically, one of Knights’ weaknesses could also be considered a re-reader’s asset. Due to Gladys Mitchell’s authorial penchant for switching the murderer’s identity while writing out her narrative, the last-chapter reveal can sometimes feel ill-fitting and unsatisfying. That is the case here, where the clues offered throughout never combine to point in one definite direction, and only incidentally point toward the villain Mitchell chose. When the killer’s identity is this arbitrary, through, I can rarely remember how the story ends, so each re-reading offers me the puzzle anew (while each dénouement disappoints afresh). The most rewarding feature of The Whispering Knights is indeed Gladys Mitchell’s handling of her prehistoric set-pieces. As the group tours the ancient stone circles which dot the Oxfordshire countryside, the author’s love of British landscape, history, and folklore combine to provide an agreeable travelogue. Knights may be worth the journey, as long as the reader doesn’t worry too much about its final tableau.