Lament for Leto (Gladys Mitchell)

By Gladys Mitchell

First published: UK, Michael Joseph, 1971

Blurb (UK)

Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, taking shelter from the rain in the British Museum, encounters a middle-aged archaeologist named Ronald Dick whom she last met in Greece many years previously.  He persuades her to join another expedition in that country to visit various shrines and temples dedicated in the Golden Age to Apollo, who was the son of Leto by Zeus.

The party turns out to be an ill-assorted one and, of the ten people who form it, only the leader is seriously interested in its object.  Six of the members are young and, on the whole, frivolous; and, in any case, harmonious relationships are jeopardised by a selfish woman novelist whom almost all the others would soon like to see dead.

In the end one of them kills her and it takes Dame Beatrice to work out the identity of the murderer.

The author has been twice to Greece, so that the various locations are authentic and, apart from the story itself, the book should appeal to all lovers of the Cyclades, the Peleponnese and the city of Athens.

My review

While I had dismissed this book as a dull and lifeless retread of Come Away, Death (no doubt occasioned by reading the one straight after the other), a rereading reveals it to be quite a pleasant travelogue, if an indifferent detective story. Amongst the entertaining tourist stuff around Greece, there’s some decent character work and witty (if monotonously unlifelike) dialogue – closer to Wilde’s epigram than natural conversation. The murderer is the character marked from the beginning, which is preferable to Mitchell’s often arbitrary solutions, particularly after the nadir of the 1960s. A pleasant, if minor, work.

Contemporary reviews

Sunday Times (H.R.F. Keating, 13th May 1971):

There’s nothing like honest crime fiction to light up the ever-altering fabric of the times.  If you want a rain check on current morality, guaranteed free from pundit-error, read two very different crime stories published on the same day and see two pointers swinging round to look implacably in the same direction.  In a good old-fashioned detective story watch the murderer get right away with it.  In a swinging sex-and-thrills fantasy [Think Inc. by Adam Diment] note the line “There aren’t good or bad guys now.  Just nice or nasty.”

Miss Mitchell, who produced her first detective story in 1929 and has given us a gratitude-provoking supply ever since, is as far as you can get from Mr. Diment (born 1945).  But, in setting out to provide her sort of cosy read, she ends a tale of mixed motives on a Grecian cruise with the culprit unmasked only in private by the aged and reptilian Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley.  Well, even in the golden time not every murderer went to the gallows.  But in those days if the one who done it was let off he had to have had “intolerable provocation” and be nice, too.  The significant thing about this 1971 murderer is that he (or she) fulfils neither of these qualifications.