My Father Sleeps (Gladys Mitchell)

By Gladys Mitchell

First published: UK, Michael Joseph, 1944


Blurb (UK)

Mitchell - My Father Sleeps.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Here is the redoubtable Mrs. Bradley—described by The Times as one of the most formidable of fictional detectives—at her best.  Amidst the superb scenery of the Western Highlands, Miss Mitchell has staged one of the most baffling and interesting of her many murders.  My Father Sleeps is a thriller for connoisseurs.


My review

2001

My Father Sleeps shows Mitchell’s powers of imagination, plotting, and evocation of landscape in full flight.  As with nearly all Mitchell’s books, “the story … [is] a curious one… [and] satisfie[s] various demands which the eager hearer was accustomed to make upon tales of pity and terror, and ha[s], in addition, that delightful quality of melodrama without which the seeker after excitement is never completely happy.”

The scene is the Western Highlands of Scotland, “the most amazing country in the world; strange and remote as Tibet; comforting and homely as Devon; a land of the wildest romance and the most rigid Sabbatarianism; abounding in legend; the prey of commercial enterprise; holiday resort and unknown, almost unexplored and hilly wilderness. But in spite of all these obvious comparisons and contrasts, there could be no denying its loveliness, its magic, the gentle simplicity and dignity of its people. Soaked in the cruelly-spilt blood of bygone ages, rife with feud, torn by the cross-currents of divided loyalties, it also housed, and roughly and wonderfully nursed, the salt and the pith of human kind.”

Mitchell does not merely tell the reader about Scotland, but takes him on a guided tour of the landscape, with scenes set in Ballachulish, in Craigullich, in Inverness, on the Rannoch moor, and on Skye, and points out all the geographical features, Mrs. Bradley and company clambering over “hill and dale, mountain and pass, bealach [1], blair, brinach, clachan [2], craig[3], coille, clunie, corrie[4], druim[5], eilean, fail[6], haugh[7], kyle[8], larig, linn[9], machair, mull[10], rath[11], rhinns, sgeir, shieling[12], strath[13], struan, tullach [and] uam”.

As one would expect, there is much travelling—indeed, so much so in the first chapter as nearly to put the reader off, but the reader soon becomes attuned to the style (although lamenting the absence of a map of the Western Highlands, for, even with an atlas, the movements are slightly hard to follow), and Mrs. Bradley and her family, and a first-class plot are highly agreeable travelling companions.

Mrs. Bradley, who is holidaying—accompanied by her secretary, Laura Menzies; Laura’s brother, Ian and his wife, Catherine; her nephew and his wife, Jonathan and Deborah Bradley (fairly much interchangeable with Ian and Catherine); and her great-nephew, Brian Lestrange—in Scotland before addressing a conference in Inverness, has been considerably toned down, and is a prototype of her Dame Beatrice incarnation. Yet the reader is never allowed to forget for an instant that Mrs. Bradley is in control of the situation, however complex it, and however mild she, may appear: she “will lay down her cards and scoop the pool, you’ll see. She always does. She weaves the web, and, in the end, the flies walk into it.” She is physically active, tracking two ex-convicts across the Highlands with the assistance of her secretary’s brother Ian, “no mean performer at a game in which muscle and temper, skill, boldness and patience all played a considerable part”; and performs a scientific experiment à la mode de Thorndyke with, what we learn for the first time, is the “paraphernalia [that] formed part of her hand-luggage wherever she went”.

The plot itself is one of Mitchell’s most complex and convoluted, yet admirably and succinctly explained, showing Mitchell’s imagination at its best, with such highly intriguing and sinister incidents as the possibly mad or haunted (or shamming) Hector Loudoun, a “mysterious gentleman who is half-murdered by perfect strangers who want to buy his land; who hears ghostly voices; who hears night-prowlers skulking in his policies and who mislays his housekeeper”, accosting Ian and Catherine and begging them to spend the night at his home of Craigullich in order to hear the ghost of his father, which haunts him nightly; the complicated and murderous family history of the Loudouns and the Stewarts, Hector Loudoun’s uncle (or father?) having been murdered by his mother’s first husband, who was later hanged; problems of impersonation and of inheritance; the discovery of a dead stranger on Rannoch moor; sunken treasure; clan warfare; and Laura’s run-ins with a (false, and possibly mad) artist on the moors. Thankfully, in what is one of her most complex cases, the solution Mrs. Bradley gives is clear and easily understandable, all the clues listed in table form (a feature Mitchell should have used more often), while the final pages find Laura asking questions and Mrs. Bradley filling in the loose ends (another feature that should have been used more often, for Mitchell, as fans readily admit, often fails to properly explain her mysteries).

This wonderful book is unquestionably one of Mitchell’s triumphs, and is to be warmly recommended to all readers experienced in Mitchell—and the book should be less difficult than some to find, as it was reprinted by Severn House in 1981.

[1]               The mouth of a river or valley.

[2]               A small village in the Highlands of Scotland.

[3]               Scottish for crag: a steep rugged rock; a detached or projecting rough piece of rock.

[4]               A circular hollow on a mountain side, where the deer often lie.

[5]               A ridge or ‘rigg’, a long narrow hill often separating two parallel valleys.

[6]               A turf, a sod.

[7]               A piece of flat alluvial land by the side of a river, forming part of the floor of the river valley.

[8]               A narrow channel between two islands, or an island and the mainland; a sound, a strait.

[9]               A torrent running over rocks; a waterfall. A pool, esp. one into which a cataract falls. A ravine with precipitous sides.

[10]             A promontory or headland.

[11]             An enclosure (usu. circular) made by a strong earthern wall, and serving as a fort and place of residence for the chief of a tribe; a hill-fort. (Often erron. ascribed to the Danes.)

[12]             A piece of pasture to which cattle may be driven for grazing. A hut of rough construction erected on or near such a piece of pasture.

[13]             A wide valley; a tract of level or low-lying land traversed by a river and bounded by hills or high ground. A stretch of flat land by the waterside.

Definitions from the O.E.D.


Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 30th September 1944):

Yet another kind of murder mystery has been invented.  In My Father Sleeps questions concerning who, how and why barely arise.  Mrs. Bradley is now in the Highlands, and the plot is lost in a Scottish mist until she has travelled over or through everything from bealach and blair, tullach and uam to find it.  The reader, never sufficiently in her confidence to be able to hazard even as much as a wild guess, should be content to admire the scenery and learn some Gaelic.  What is most pleasing about the author’s admirable style is the dialogue.  She ought to write a book on local peculiarities of speech in the British Isles.

 

The Observer (Maurice Richardson, 8th October 1944):

Miss Gladys Mitchell’s psychiatrist-succubus Mrs. Bradley is in the Highlands, chasing homicidal pseudo-lairds, quoting much Gaelic and spreading confusion as usual.  Her admirers will find her waiting for them in My Father Sleeps.

 

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 24th February 1945):

My Father Sleeps is a gallop round the Highlands with that old sleuth-hound Mrs. Bradley, and a Gaelic war-cry at the head of each chapter to flog us on.  What with the lochs and the glens and the clans and the Gaelic, it is a relief to meet a gentleman who leaps across the room like a jaguar.  I found out that one or two of the murders we are investigating date from 1919, but don’t let that deter you.  Time and space mean nothing to Mrs. Bradley.  Miss Mitchell writes the strangest detection, but her surrealist style finds its adherents.  I’m sure they will all enjoy My Father Sleeps.