First published: UK, Michael Joseph, 1962; US, British Book Centre, 1962
Gladys Mitchell goes to Scotland. In the 1960s. Losh!
The Sixties were probably Mitchell’s weakest decade. Mitchell – as both her fans and her critics know – rarely wrote orthodox detective stories. While some of her books have clever plots, we read her primarily for her imagination, her humor, and her style; for wonderful old Mrs. Bradley, witch-like psychiatrist, and her Amazonian secretary Laura.
Who else but Mitchell would combine a Bildungsroman with a hunt for a serial killer, or write a Wodehousian farce decrying sexual puritanism? Some are almost straight novels with detective interludes, others are Buchanesque adventure yarns, some are mystery plays or Homeric epics.
But those were early works. The Sixties books often feel lacklustre. Mrs. Bradley was toned down, and become the colorless Dame Beatrice, given to epigrams and formal diction rather than witchcraft, sprinting cross-country in her underwear, and the occasional murder.
Mitchell’s own high spirits faded; her chief stylistic influence seemed to be I. Compton-Burnett. The books are largely conversation; Dame Beatrice and Laura (always good company) discuss the mystery (or English idioms), and interview suspects. Worse, we’re often told about events, rather than seeing them for ourselves. (Some of Mitchell’s very late books, as Jason Hall points out, are almost all told second-hand.)
I like My Bones Will Keep more than most of the books from this time – certainly more than the books on either side, the humdrum Nodding Canaries (1961) and the awful Adders on the Heath (1963) – but it’s far from vintage Mitchell.
Mitchell often goes slightly haywire when she goes to Scotland. Hangman’s Curfew (1941), her first novel north of the border, and My Father Sleeps (1944) are both adventure stories, in which the characters traipse over hills and across moors, sail around the islands, and get shot at, while the plot thickens like a Scotch broth. They’re entertaining yarns, if over-complex (Father) or incoherent (Curfew).
“It seems,” Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan complained, “the author cannot send her characters across the borders of that country without involving them in an imbroglio of impossible dimensions. ‘Everything in this little adventure seems more than a little odd,’ Dame Beatrice remarks justly in a later Scottish novel (My Bones Will Keep, 1962).”
And odd it is. Cù Dubh, laird of Tannasgan, who lives in the Big House, An Tigh Mór, on an island in Loch na Gréine, is clouted on the head, skewered with a skian-dhu, and thrown into a barrel of rum. The complex plot involves madmen; impostors; several people called Grant (not all related); buried treasure; gun-running in the Caribbean; and a garden full of monsters.
Promising ingredients, most of ’em, but plot and execution are a long way from Mitchell’s best.
Like many of her books, the first half is an adventure story, in which an innocent person is embroiled in mysterious events: Laura sees a man run over in Edinburgh; her own car is used during the night by a woman to whom she gives a lift; and she seeks sanctuary from the rain at the island home of Malcolm Donalbain Macbeth (alias Ossian), madman and monster maniac, from whose castle she escapes by night.
But it’s slow-moving, with lots of travelogue. Chapter 1 is a guidebook to Edinburgh, with the hit-and-run death almost in passing, while elsewhere Mitchell succumbs to what Edmund Crispin called her “weakness for verbalising maps”:
Passing through Tigh-Òsda, she followed the railway-line until it branched off to skirt Loch Carron, while she herself followed the road which led to the ferry. She took the car across and was still debating with herself when they reached the other side. She could take the little road to Kyle of Lochalsh and cross to Kyleakin on Skye, or she could take the opposite way and go by the northern shore of Loch Duich to Invergarry and Spean Bridge and finish the day at Fort William. In the end she compromised by opting for Skye.
She drove carefully off the ferry-steamer on to the quay at Kyleakin and then, instead of heading for Broadford, as at first she had thought of doing, she branched off southwards, recollecting a pension, or guest-house, kept by two maiden ladies, sisters, at Isleornsay, on the coast….
She was received with kindly courtesy and was conducted to her room. It was a turret chamber, well endowed with windows from which she obtained a magnificent view of the Sound of Sleat. Laura promised herself a morning walk along the coast to Armadale and perhaps as far as the Point of Sleat, from which she could get a view of the mountains of Rum and, northwards, the extraordinary outline of the Cuillin.p. 49
In the early morning she ate porridge and kippers and after breakfast she paid her score, drove to Armadale Castle and took the mainland ferry to Mallaig. From there she dropped down to Arisaig and reached Fort William in time for lunch…
While she was having lunch she debated which of two routes she should take and where she should spend the last night of her holiday. At Ballachulish she could follow the coast road southward towards Oban and then go by the Pass of Brander to Loch Awe and Dalmally, or she could drive eastward from Ballachulish through Glencoe and across the Moor of Rannoch to Tyndrum and Crianlarich.p. 52
Mitchell doesn’t include a map, so Google Maps is essential.
Once the mystery gets going, it’s both confusing and confused – and it feels arbitrary. “X and Y did it,” says Dame Beatrice; and we pretty much have to take it on trust. I first read Bones in 2007, my last “new” Mitchell. A decade later, I couldn’t remember whodunnit. Not a good sign.
A twist on the last page partly redeems the weak ending. Still, it’s a far cry from St. Peter’s Finger or Brazen Tongue.
Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, D.B.E., is in Edinburgh to attend a Conference.
On the first day of her stay, before the Conference opens, her secretary, Laura, sees a man killed in the street by a car and tells Dame Beatrice that she believes it was no accident but that he was pushed. The street was crowded, however, so she cannot identify the killers.
It is arranged that during the Conference Laura shall take a fortnight’s holiday. She hires a small car and sets out to tour the Western Highlands.
Here another murder takes place—an extremely bizarre affair in a house on a small island in a beautiful loch—and Laura is pursued in her journeying by a young man who seems to think that he will be suspected and that she can provide him with an alibi.
She returns to Edinburgh and enlists the help of Dame Beatrice, who solves the affair with her usual success.
Times Literary Supplement (Philip John Stead, 12th October 1962):
Gladys Mitchell’s My Bones Will Keep has quite a different attraction [from Julian Symons’ The Killing of Francie Lake]. The scene is for the most part Scotland, with excursions into the western highlands (the Loch Ness Monster almost becomes a character) and the Scottish glamour is all the richer and stranger for being seen through the highly discriminating and civilised eyes of Dame Beatrice Bradley and Mrs. Laura Gavin, two characters who have long since established a claim to the affection of Miss Mitchell’s regular readers. The detective problem is greatly complicated and clouded by people whose very names are uncertain and also by the author’s aptitude for inducing her readers to make wild guesses. It is likely, however, that the lochs and the islands will linger when the detective puzzle has been forgotten.