Come Away, Death (Gladys Mitchell)

By Gladys Mitchell

First published: UK, Michael Joseph, 1937


Blurb (UK)

Mitchell - Come Away, Death.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Gladys Mitchell’s new detective story has an unusual and attractive setting: Greece and the ruined city of Ephesus in Asia Minor.  A “crank” archaeologist, Sir Rudri Hopkinson, determines to go to several of the ancient cities of Greece to see whether, by reproducing the known conditions of ancient sacrifice and worship, he can obtain any manifestations of the existence of the gods and goddesses of Greek mythology.

Mrs. Bradley accompanies the party on its remarkable excursion, and from the outset all sorts of odd experiences befall the members of the expedition.  These experiences might be accidents, they might be psychic, they might be due to criminal negligence on the part of some of the members, or they might be murderous attempts.

It is not easy to decide whether, for example, a bad fall into the excavated grave-circle at Mycenae, and the exchange of snakes at Epidaurus, are acts of the gods, carelessness, accidents, practical jokes carried too far, revenges (of a criminal character?) or attempts at intimidation or murder.  It is also difficult to explain the appearance of the Second God at Eleusis.  Even when murder does take place, the means and the motive are at first obscure, but Mrs. Bradley unravels the mystery with the brilliant deduction and detection her admirers quite rightly expect of her.

Much of the story is comedy, but the lover of Greece will find nothing in the book to offend him.  No connoisseur of the detective story should miss Come Away, Death, which is one of the best detective novels we have had the privilege of publishing.


My review

2001

This, Gladys Mitchell’s eighth detective story, is easily one of her best, splendidly written, and with an original and unusual plot. Set in Greece, and involving Greek mythology, it immediately captivates this reader, who grew up on Greek mythology. Greece is vividly drawn, described as ‘easily the most uncomfortable of all the countries of Europe. No inns, many bugs, high mountains, no roads, a difficult language, uneatable food — I quite adore it.’ The atmosphere is curious and indescribable, compounded of the weight of history, mythology, ruins, the supernatural, and the effect of light. The characterisation is superb, with well-differentiated and interesting portraits. Mrs. Bradley and the archaeologist Sir Rudri Hopkinson are certainly the most original, but the other characters are all recognisably human, showing Mitchell’s understanding of the human psyche.

The plot concerns an attempt on the part of the insane Sir Rudri, whose “mind was precariously balanced between pseudo-scholarly enthusiasm and some more obvious form of insanity”, to discover what the Mysteries of Eleusis were. ‘Rudri thinks — or says he thinks — that if one could reproduce all the conditions, one would find out.’ However, Sir Rudri’s other motive is to humiliate an archaeological rival — the insanity and the revenge provide both the bizarre atmosphere and the later motive for murder. The attempt to discover what the Mysteries were necessitates the visiting of several different archaeological sites: ‘We are going first to Eleusis…; from there to Epidaurus, to see what we can do with the Aesculapius cult—the god of healing — thence to Mycenae for the Homeric offerings, then back here again before we cross to Ephesus, unless it seems better to return to Nauplia and take a boat from there. At Eleusis, of course, we revive the Artemis worship.’

The Mysteries of Eleusis are particularly memorable. The night-time processions are vividly drawn, tinged with a touch of tragic mysticism — a sense of futility:

The imaginary spectacle of Sir Rudri walking with torches in the dusk of the Greek evening, chanting strange hymns and sorrowful litanies to the Eleusinian gods Iacchus and Dionysus, and to the goddesses Persephone and Demeter, and to the god-king Triptolemus. She could see him, dogged idealist and romancer, proceeding ploddingly the while along the petrol-haunted, dusty Sacred Way which now led, in the age of progress, from one Greek slum to another.

The tour group visits Eleusis, where they witness a (faked) manifestation of Iacchus; and Epidaurus, whose “lonely road and the lonely valley, the vast, bare, empty theatre, the Hieron of Aesculapius, a place of mystery and faith to generations who had gone, impress (one of the tour group) with a growing sense of fear”, and where the harmless snakes representing the god are exchanged for English adders.

However, it is the two last sites — Mycenae and Ephesus — which are the most memorable. Mycenae is described with a rare lyrical beauty:

She looked abroad, over the misty and indeterminate landscape which soon the sun would reveal as the Argive plain. She looked to the shadowy mountains, dark purple, and massed like cloud, and, nearer, to the citadel of Larissa, and thought of the burning beacons, heralds of the fall of Troy. By night the place had seemed no wilder than and not as lonely as many English country districts she had stayed in. The great walls had been companionable; the cow a pantomime animal; the little adventure of Dick’s tumbling into the pit an incident far removed from the terrors which lived in the plays of Aeschylus. But at dawn, and, even more, she knew, beneath the hot noonday sun, Mycenae came into her own. Her tragedy and her greatness loomed like battle on the landscape. The walls enclosed the dead, and the great excavations, where Schliemann had kissed the gold death-mask of Agamemnon, yawned like the graves that they were.

And again:

The legends of the Atridae hung brooding over the heavy, broken walls, about the Lion Gate, and round the unguarded graves. The dark passion of Clytemnestra, the anguish of young Orestes, made heavy the lowering atmosphere, soaked beyond bearing already, with the heat of dead air before a storm.

The scene at Mycenae is one of the most spell-binding in all Mitchell’s work — an extraordinarily powerful and imaginative scene, establishing Mitchell as the greatest of detective story writers, and showing Mrs. Bradley at the top of her powers and compared to “the original Pythoness of Delphi” (although an earlier scene, in which she traps a snake in her suitcase, and uses it as a pillow, is also a high point), as she attempts to prevent the sacrifice of three little boys:

‘Children?’ said Mrs. Bradley. In the sunset light of the wild glen of the Atrides she stood before him like some ancient prophetess and waved her skinny arms and menaced him with her hideous, leering lips. Her black eyes, reddened, it seemed, by the last rays of the sun, the declining Apollo, held (Sir Rudri’s), and he felt he could not take his gaze from hers. ‘Children?’ The word went echoing over the hill and against the thick walls, and shouted itself to silence over the plain. ‘What of the young sons of Thyestes, who seduced the wife of Atreus? What of their spilt blood crying aloud for vengeance? What of the curse which descended to Agamemnon and to Orestes?’

Ephesus, the last port of call on Sir Rudri’s extraordinary tour was certainly the largest, the most interesting, and the most romantic. Even Epidaurus, for all its upland beauty and the glory of its almost perfect theatre, could not compare … with a district which was in many ways so like an English landscape as to banish all sense of strangeness, all feeling of not being at home. There was nothing remote or fearful, nothing awe-inspiring or uncomfortable about Ephesus. Before them, as they gathered about the baggage near the Stadium, stretched a winding, inviting path which soon branched off to give a wide view of the ruins. The ruins themselves were not desolate. It was rather as though some experimental building had been abandoned before completion. There was nothing sad about Ephesus. The uncovered, excavated part of the Sacred Way, the exciting and inviting little path which led up to the back-stage passages of the theatre, the theatre itself, weed-grown, ruinous, and delightfully sunny and friendly, the royal road, the Roman arcadiane, leading from the harbour to the city, the stepped library of Celsus and his solid, inviolate tomb, combined to enravish the party.

 

 Ephesus, never quite silent, always exciting and lovable, was fascinating, mysterious, and full of ghosts by night.

There is a powerful night-time scene at the Temple of Artemis, one with a genuine frisson of the bizarre and the uncanny; and it is at Ephesus, on page 234 of 320, that the dead body — or, rather, the severed head — appears, causing Mrs. Bradley to demonstrate her detective powers at their best. Some critics may carp that the solution is “somewhat improbable” — but Mitchell at her best is always improbable.

Or, as one of the characters says of Sir Rudri Hopkinson, ‘It’s true he isn’t sound on some points, but he has the vision, the enthusiasm, and, of course, the imagination.’ Like character, like author.

A sequel, Lament for Leto, was written in 1971.


Contemporary reviews

The Observer (Torquemada, 7th November 1937):

COME AWAY, DEATH

Some of that small band which consists of genuine literary artists who have been drawn into the writing of detective stories are obviously beginning to feel that if they do not break the stereotype the kind will perish.  They say, in effect, the corpse is too much with us, late and soon killing and sleuthing, we lay waste our tales.  One way out of the difficulty was obviously to write at greater than ordinary length so that there should also be room for the things that are most excellent.  Dorothy L. Sayers led the way with Busman’s  Honeymoon, in which a full-blooded idyll was diversified by detective interest; Anthony Berkeley followed with Trial and Error, in which the extra length went in satirical elaborations of the jest, and now here is Gladys Mitchell with over four hundred pages of Come Away, Death.  The author of this last employs and justifies her new spaciousness in a still different way; she gives only a single murder, but has made it of such a kind that it is absolutely necessary for us to go old places and see old things in order to flavour the mystery of it.  And very delightful that going and seeing is.  With Athens for a base to which we again and again return, we join Sir Rudri Hopkinson and his variously sceptical pilgrims, and with them visit and camp and adopt postures at Eleusis, Epidaurus, Mycenae, and Ephesus.  Sir Rudri’s idea is that if we reproduce all the conditions of the Mysteries we may thereby receive a revelation of what they were.  Mrs. Bradley is of the party, and therefore much minor madness hangs over us all the way, for that redoubtable alienist still has the effect of batnip upon bats.  But there is none of that undiagnosed and therefore slightly unfair madness which spoiled the end of Dead Men’s Morris.  Mrs. Bradley is mature, for the first time a completely living person, with certain previous violences of personality softened and merged into her background, and her relations with the three perfectly presented schoolboys of the party make us very fond of her.  This is the most enjoyable detective story I have read for a long time.

 

The Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 10th December 1937):

A year or two ago the papers recorded how, in all solemnity, certain persons performed an ancient ritual of black magic whereby a goat was to be turned into a man.  They wished, it was explained, to see if anything happened.  Nothing did.  Naturally.  In Come Away, Death Miss Gladys Mitchell has imagined a similar attempt to reproduce on the site of ruined Greek temples the worship of the ancient gods, also apparently to see what would happen.  What happens this time is murder.  But that murder hardly springs from the imagined situation, nor are either that situation or the characters concerned very clearly defined.  Nevertheless, in the careful accounts of the different journeys to the various sites visited some readers may find matter to remind them of the glory and the wonder that once was Greece.

 

Times Literary Supplement (Brian Hill, 11th December 1937):

An unwritten rule among detective story writers bans the insane murderer, and it might well be extended to other central characters.  In Miss Gladys Mitchell’s new novel, for example, the plot hangs on the attempts of a certifiable, but uncertified, archaeologist to obtain supernatural manifestations at Eleusis and elsewhere in Greece by reproducing as closely as possible the rites of worship of the ancient gods.  For this purpose Sir Rudri Hopkinson gathers about him his family and a number of friends, including some delightful children and, of course, Mrs. Bradley.  It says much for Miss Mitchell’s skill in writing and character-drawing that the meanderings of the expedition—complicated by its leader’s equally cranky desire to score off an archaeological opponent who makes one of the party—are always interesting and at times very funny.  Indeed, among the love-makings of the young people, the ritual experiments and bickerings of their elders and the wholehearted enjoyment of the little boys, murder seems out of place.  But it provides Mrs. Bradley, who is as characteristically amusing as ever, with opportunities to ferret out the clues that lead to a surprising, if somewhat improbable, solution.

 

Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 17th December 1937):

From Egypt [in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile] we proceed to Greece, where Miss Mitchell has evidently been spending a holiday.  From the point of view of detection, Come Away, Death is almost perfunctory.  The murderee does not get his till three-quarters way through the book: but we are in no doubt who he is going to be—he is bashed in succession by almost all the other characters, and rightly.  Nor, I feel, do we get really enough material to find out the murderer.  The action is very hilarious and confused, reminding one of O.T.C. night-manoeuvres or those time-worn copies of early Russian films in which everything seems to be happening either in blinding sunlight or at midnight in a coal-cellar.  But what else could one expect when a romantic classical scholar like Sir Rudri Hopkinson leads a party round Eleusis, Epidaurus, Mycenae and Ephesus, hoping to conjure up the Greek deities by re-enacting their ceremonial?  Still, the fun is so diverting—particularly the escapades and dialogue of the three small boys—that I can easily forgive Miss Mitchell for treating murder so flippantly.

 

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 18th December 1937):

Miss Gladys Mitchell sends the reptilian Mrs. Bradley on a kind of Hellenic cruise in Come Away, Death.  The plot is wild; the book is long; but admirers of that old basilisk—and they are legion—will revel in her imposing qualities; understanding for children, compassion for lovers, disrespect for authority and domination for everybody.

 

The Times (21st December 1937):

If Sir William shows signs of mental instability [in Phillpotts’s Lycanthrope], so does Sir Rudri Hopkinson in Miss Gladys Mitchell’s Come Away Death.  Sir Rudri’s archaeological enthusiasm leads him, in company with his family and some friends, to embark on an attempt to evoke the ancient gods of Greece by a reproduction of their rites of worship on the site of their temples.  The odd things that befall the party keep Mrs. Bradley busy with her notebook.  Who decapitated the snakes of Aesculapius?  Who pushed Dick down the excavations at Mycenae?  What game is Armstrong, the photographer, playing?  These and other mysterious occurrences are skilfully interwoven to intrigue the reader, who will find this unusual Cook’s tour of the Levant an excellent entertainment.

 

Sydney Morning Herald (11th February 1938):

ARCHAEOLOGISTS’ PARADISE

Gladys Mitchell’s new detective story is far removed from the type of work one usually expects in this field of fiction.  She tells a good tale and her characterisation is excellent.  There is, however, very little violence and still less detection.  True, a murder is ultimately committed.  But it does not strike one as being either particularly well handled or absolutely essential to the successful culmination of the plot.  There had to be a victim.  Cathleen Currie, endowed with second-sight, stated unequivocally that during the expedition which forms the background of the story someone would die.  One feels that the one death is entirely due to the necessary fulfilment of this prophecy!

Sir Rudri Hopkinson, a crank archaeologist, determines to visit several of the ancient cities of Greece and see whether, by reproducing the known conditions of ancient sacrifice and worship, he can obtain any manifestations of the existence of the gods and goddesses of Greek mythology.  His party includes Alexander Currie, an old friend who has aroused Sir Rudri’s bitter resentment by the successful perpetration of a practical joke.  Underlying the ostensible object of the expedition we have, therefore, Sir Rudri’s determination to get even with Currie.  Mrs. Bradley, a distinguished doctor and psychologist, accompanies the party in the role of chaperon and observer.  She has been a friend of the Hopkinsons for many years and aware of the unstable conditions of Sir Rudri’s mentality.  Her shrewd comments and eminently sensible actions form an important thread throughout the book.

At the outset, all sorts of odd experiences befall the members of the expedition.  These experiences might be psychic, they might be due to criminal negligence on the part of some of the members, or they might be murderous attempts.  The atmosphere of mystery is well sustained throughout the story and satisfactorily dispelled in the last chapter.

Miss Mitchell has been hailed by overseas critics as a second Dorothy Sayers.  The connoisseurs of detective fiction will probably question the justice of this claim.  All readers will, however, enjoy the author’s delightful character studies, particularly her vivid pictures of the three small boys who accompanied the expedition.