Philip Larkin on Gladys Mitchell (1982)

THE GREAT GLADYS

Required Writings (London: Faber & Faber, 1983).

Review of Here Lies Gloria Mundy (1982) by Gladys Mitchell


There seems a movement nowadays to cast Gladys Mitchell as the last of the body-in-the-library practitioners: ‘good writing, careful plotting and educated wit,’ as her latest jacket says. Not so. Grant the good writing, but otherwise Miss Mitchell has always (and this [Gladys Mitchell, Here Lies Gloria Mundy (London: Michael Joseph, 1982)] is her sixty-second book) stood splendidly apart from her crime-club confrères in total originality—even when, as today, there are almost none left to stand apart from.

This originality consists in blending eccentricity of subject-matter with authoritative common sense of style. One accepts that a Gladys Mitchell novel can begin with a cross-country runner being asked to help lift an ominously immobile wrapped-up invalid into a car [The Dancing Druids, 1948], or with a young lady who dresses either in armour or eighteenth-century male costume on the grounds that her guardian has taken her clothes away [Dance to Your Daddy, 1969]. One of her novels even ends with three people buried up to their necks as part of a surrealist exhibition,their heads shaved and painted purple: the murderer is the one on the right. Dancing stones, water nymphs and other anthropological curiosities appear occasionally, and much use is made of impersonations, mistaken identity and identical twins. In consequence it is not impossible for the reader to finish a book without grasping not only who the murderer is, but sometimes even who has been murdered.

But all this is balanced by calm exposition in non-emotive prose (a Gladys Mitchell novel is never ‘exciting’ in the ordinary sense). Her tales are set in precise topographical surroundings, and often told by some eminently sane young teacher or writer (or, as in the masterly The Devil’s Elbow, a coach-party courier) who becomes involved in alarming or mystifying events from which he has to be extricated.

The extricating is done by Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley. If there is a sybilline tradition of detection, embracing Miss Marple, Miss Silver, and perhaps even Miss Murchison, Mrs. Bradley is its presiding genius. Her status as Home Office psychiatric consultant enables her to move easily among the deviations of behaviour and real or pretended mental disturbances with which the books abound (her examination of suspects by word-association is especially absorbing). She is never at a loss. Her nearest approach to bafflement is an enigmatic ‘Time will tell, child.’ Interviews that seem unproductive to the reader are full of significant omissions or misrepresentations to Mrs. Bradley, who will only cackle uncooperatively when asked to name them (‘Think, child’). Long ago she is supposed to have been tried for murder and acquitted—according to her, wrongfully. One of her ancestors was a witch.

While she has changed little since 1929, her encounter with the ‘Amazonian’ Laura Menzies in Laurels are Poison (1942) greatly enhanced her resources. Introduced as a tomboyish Training College student, Laura becomes her secretary, and takes on something of the role of Archie Goodwin in the Nero Wolfe books, always ready to breeze in and ask questions where her principal might arouse suspicion. Before her marriage to Detective Inspector Gavin and eventual retreat into matronhood, Laura was equally prepared to strip off and dive for evidence or to test tides; some unregenerate readers came to value these episodes for themselves. She is of Highland descent, and claims ‘the gift’, which gives her an odd kinship with her eldritch employer. Her attachment to ‘Mrs Croc’ (Mrs. Bradley’s saurian appearance is constantly emphasised) is all the stronger for never being referred to.

They are a formidable and convincing pair, and Here Lies Gloria Mundy is a characteristic addition to the Mitchell canon. The story is told by an author who has been commissioned by an old college friend to write up a chain of hotels directed by the latter, as indeed he had been planning to write up an unexplained murder, and finds himself drawn into a series of happenings that lead back to the crime he has abandoned. The waif-like Gloria Mundy, known of old to the hotel friend, has half her hair red and half black (an ancestress was burnt as a witch), and is herself found murdered. A few weeks later she is seen working in a shop. This is the authentic Mitchell frisson.

One does not expect a writer to break new ground in her ninth decade, but the final dream sequence (not, I hasten to say, a substitute for a properly deduced solution) has an eeriness all its own. On page 167, too, two of the characters make love, which I don’t remember in a Mitchell novel before. It is almost as if she were recalling the Dick Francis of Risk. Perhaps it was a mistake to have a third witchlike person in the cast, the Chaucerian Aunt Eglantine, but she and Mrs. Bradley get on famously.

The best thing about the book is that it will send me back to some of the earlier masterpieces: to When Last I Died, with its Harry Price haunting, disturbing diary entries and general air of yellowing newspaper reports; to the serene convent of St. Peter’s Finger, where the traumas of adolescence and a suspected bathroom geyser trouble the faithful; to the tour de force of The Rising of the Moon, in which a thirteen-year-old boy recounts in seamless and convincing prose gruesome goings-on by the river at Brentford. And I shall read them as novels. They ought to be known as such.