First published: UK, Michael Joseph, 1943
“Amongst detective story-writers Gladys Mitchell is in a class by herself.” – QUEEN MAGAZINE
Excellent – but I can see why others might not like it. It’s not really a detective story, in the fair play, puzzle plot sense. There are mysteries; in fact, much of the story is shrouded in mystery, like river mist. Who is the old man who died? How does Harben fit into this? Is he Leda’s lover? Is she the old man’s wife? But the usual mysteries of who, how, and why don’t really arise. Beautifully written, though. The tone is enigmatic, often understated; Harben’s romance (?) with Leda is dreamlike, while the scenes with the nuns and children have a quiet, contemplative charm.
“It’s the sort of report of a dream that you would expect a novelist to make. Its craziness is nicely rounded off; the story is complete; there are no loose ends, as it were… Lots of people embroider their dreams in the telling of them. They cannot bear an incomplete and pointless narrative.”
When I first read Gladys Mitchell’s 1943 novel, Sunset Over Soho, a book her admirers either loathe or admire (and let the reader consider that, as Anthony Boucher pointed out, either the reader loves her books or can’t read them at all), I fell firmly into the loathing category, ranking it at the very bottom of her books, and writing as my review:
“An unsuccessful attempt to combine the shaggy-dog story, the adventure yarn, and the detective tale. Despite the promising beginning — dead body in a coffin turned up during the Blitz — the tale very quickly falls to pieces, due to a lack of narrative cohesion, too many changes of scene, an inability to distinguish truth from fiction, and too many characters and actions which, in retrospect, are seen to mean…nothing. The end is a fizzle — but, by then, the reader has stopped caring.”
If someone with close to forty books under their belt couldn’t make head or tail of it, what, then, does the lay-reader make of such “a baffling, beautiful, exquisitely strange experience”?
But do not be too quick to dismiss this tale as inchoate rubbish.
On re-reading, the book seems less of a plotless jumble of loosely-connected set pieces, and more a tight plot—albeit one in the tradition of Lewis Carroll, a book in which the atmosphere, incidents, and, above all, logic (“all the mad logic of a dream”, to quote Nicholas Blake on the works of John Dickson Carr) are its own — Mitchell at her most sui generis. Like the works of Lewis Carroll, Sunset Over Soho is best viewed as an account of a dream — a fact continually stressed in Mitchell’s narrative. Dream sequences abound, the dreamers being the two main characters: Mitchell’s series detective Mrs. Bradley, “a small, ugly, curiously vital old lady, with sharp black eyes, a yellow skin and a grin like that of an anticipatory crocodile”; and David Harben, a writer who becomes involved with a mysterious woman known as “Leda” (mother by Zeus of Helen, who sparked off the Trojan War), who comes to his tub in the middle of the night, and tells him that “he is dead”. (It later transpires that “Leda” is his mistress, a woman whom he suspects of murder, although he also falls in love with a nun, Sister Mary Dominic.) Harben visits the house she left, and finds in it a dead body, experiences which he feels “might … have been the figments of a dream”. The action takes him out of the river and out of Soho (which are effectively contrasted and compared throughout the story – one character remarks that “Soho is dark and deep, like parts of this weedy river”) and into the Canaries and to France, plunging him into a tangle of Spanish sailors, boats, petty crime, abductions, nuns, midnight intruders armed with seamen’s knives, Dunkirk, and such cryptic clues as the statement that one character is another’s sister’s husband’s brother-in-law, and the oracular remarks made by a parrot (the reason why Harben taught the phrases to the parrot is never made clear) — events that “smelt of the sea”, and which have something to do with the discovery during the Blitz of the aforementioned coffin in a Maidenhead Close Rest Centre, a discovery taking place at the beginning of the book, even though chronologically it is at the very end!
The narrative does play a sort of demented hopscotch, but, if the reader is alert, the narrative is still understandable — keeping an eye on Mrs. Bradley, who, at the end of every chapter, explains to Pirberry exactly what she thought and thinks, is particularly useful (or bewildering, if the reader isn’t paying attention). Although Mrs. Bradley actively detects while Harben has been kidnapped and is floating around the ocean, there is very little mystery as to the broad outlines (although the inattentive or lazy reader is likely to be bewildered — taking notes is absolutely crucial): the detection is mainly concerned with filling in details and proving theories, although it seems, unless I missed something (quite likely in this tale), that the villain(s?) are still at large at the end.
Although the tale is largely lacking in humour (it was written during the darkest time of W.W.II, at a time when “Satan was out of hell, and his legions of furies and devils were loosed on a world grown slack and careless, on people absorbed in little lovings and hatreds, coarse pleasures and dirty little sins”), and requires more than usual attention on the part of the reader, if the reader is willing to work harder than usual to understand the events of the story, he will be amply rewarded.
Manchester Guardian (J.D. Beresford, 24th September 1943):
Miss Gladys Mitchell’s detective story Sunset over Soho is not in the familiar manner, and is interesting rather by the subtlety of the method than by the reader’s absorption in discovering the mystery of the two-year-old crime. Once the principle of the method is comprehended the reader’s ingenuity—as was that of the amateur psychologist detective, Mrs. Bradley—is principally concerned with the question of how far David Harben’s account of his adventures can be accepted as a true one.
Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 2nd October 1943):
There comes a time in the life of almost every successful writer of detective stories when the question is whether to work out yet another problem or whether to make something new out of the old idea of murder mysteries. Sunset Over Soho has been written in this frame of mind. There is the corpse of somebody who did not die a natural death. There is Mrs. Bradley, the psychologist, to investigate a clue that would be downright silly if the book were a straightforward example of crime fiction. It is not. The author feels like imaginative exercise for its own sake, and many people are likely to agree with her. Soho begins a story of bombs, evacuees, curious abductions, Spanish sailors, knives and Dunkirk. It does all the things a well behaved story should not do and justifies them all by virtue of a lively sense of irresponsibility. Even an enthralled reader may find himself wondering at the end what it has all been about and how corpse and detective came to be mixed up in it.
Observer (Maurice Richardson, 24th October 1943):
There has always been a strain of wilful obscurantism in Miss Gladys Mitchell. You may feel that Sunset Over Soho with its dream-like Chinese box plot, amphibious love making, bewildering nuns and Spanish gangsters is rather too difficult for you, but Mrs. Bradley is there to guide you through the maze, parts of which are peculiarly fascinating.
New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 27th November 1943):
Miss Mitchell does her best to represent English surrealism. Sunset over Soho seems to centre round a body in a coffin, which starts its career somewhere up the Thames and eventually comes to earth in an air-raid shelter in Soho, having apparently dropped out of a church. Someone takes part in the evacuation of Dunkirk, and someone else takes a trip to the Canary Islands. No incident is ever explained, and there are plenty of incidents; while Mrs. Bradley lords it over all. This must be the deepest of Miss Mitchell’s constructions, as even her most ardent fans have been unable to fathom its beauties.
In Sunset Over Soho the stabbings, plottings and concealed coffins are not merely unconvincing in themselves, but the people involved with them are not the kind of people to whom such dramas present themselves, and their reactions to them are quite unreal. That is, Mrs. Bradley, Detective-Inspector Pirberry and the rest of Miss Mitchell’s group of Soho-dwellers are well-observed and consistent characters in themselves, but become completely inconsistent when flung into a jumble of criminal activities which bear no relation to probability.