Gladys Mitchell Crime Capers

Gladys MitchellI’m afraid that today’s post about Gladys Mitchell (1901-1983) is going to be another digression from my mammoth Landing Book Shelves task. It is I admit a direct result of wandering into a charity shop for a casual browse. I know that I should avoid these temptations, but it truly is nigh on impossible to pass up the chance to poke around on a bookshelf. I had just popped into Oxfam to scan the paperbacks on my way home from shopping and, lo and behold, a crime novel caught my eye almost straightaway. My searching gaze lighted on The Longer Bodies, one of Gladys Mitchell’s early crime novels. Victor Gollancz originally published the novel in 1930 and it has been through several reprints from different publishers over the years. The Longer Bodies (2014)  is one of a recent series of Vintage reprints and the stylish theme to the jacket seems entirely appropriate to their glittering heyday.The Longer Bodies

After enjoying the twists and turns of the plot in The Longer Bodies, I am baffled as to why it has taken me until now to get around to reading Gladys Mitchell. I had heard of her before, in connection with other ‘Golden Age’ women crime writers such as Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie, but serendipity has never thrust one of Mitchell’s books into my hands until now. It won’t be plot spoiling to mention that the title refers to bodies located in the village of Longer, and not bodies stretched on a torture frame to extreme length (I’ve clearly read too many historical novels).  Although as vigorous training for a field athletics event features in the plot, perhaps the title was intended to have a second meaning.

The Longer Bodies provides the third case for Mitchell’s unusual private detective Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley. Mrs Bradley is a ‘small, thin, unattractive, and intrepid’ woman, a ‘psychoanalyst with a flair for sleuthing’. She also appears to have a flair for extraordinary combinations of colour and design in her attire, but I suppose that doesn’t make her either more or less of a detective. She wouldn’t have been able to work undercover though, judging by this description of her while on the Longer case:

The only remarkable thing about her was the almost indecent hue of the mustard-coloured sports coat which she was wearing, with terrible effect, on top of a tomato-red dress. The costume was set off…by a small cloche hat which boasted a single, straight aggressive feather. The feather shot insolently into the air for a matter of twenty inches or so…

The other aspect to Mrs Bradley’s personal appearance is the oft remarked upon resemblance to a predatory reptile. Gladys Mitchell created a female sleuth as unlike Miss Marple or Miss Silver as it was possible to be, as may be judged by this none too fluffy description of her social manner,

With what was intended to be a whimsical smile, but which approached more nearly to the kind of grin with which an alligator on the banks of the Nile might view the coming of a chubby but careless baby.

Presumably, a wise criminal would steer well clear of that reptilian smile of Beatrice Bradley’s, as I’m sure it boded no good. Mitchell also gave her detective ‘yellow claw like fingers’, which is rather disconcerting as I keep thinking of chicken’s claws whenever her hands are mentioned. To complete the picture, Mrs Bradley was prone to fiendish cackles or screeches of laughter, but in complete contrast had a surprisingly mellifluous speaking voice, ‘which gave the lie to her whole appearance’.

Mrs Bradley is in a very literal sense a rather uncomfortable person to have around as she has a penchant for poking her companions in the ribs with her umbrella. This piece of equipment is the weapon of choice of another of my favourite female detectives, Amelia Peabody, but Mrs Bradley appears to be much more ruthless in making her point (sorry!) with her ferule. It has to be noted that it is her young male sidekicks who often suffer the rib poking, in the course of their duties on the case.When Last I Died

I have since had a minor binge on Mrs Bradley, having obtained a couple more of her cases, When Last I Died (1941) and The Saltmarsh Murders (1932) from the library. Though I’ve not yet managed to get hold of Mrs Bradley’s first outing  (Speedy Death). All have been very enjoyable, and I think that overall Gladys Mitchell plays reasonably fairly with the reader’s chances of solving the crime. In other words, I guessed the culprit in The Longer Bodies and I should really have spotted the criminal in The Saltmarsh Murders, because the clues were there. Having re-read the last section of When Last I Died more carefully, I can see the groundwork being laid, so again I would have to admit that I didn’t work hard enough on my detecting.

Mrs Bradley is such as fascinating character, that I would love to come back to her as a future blog post topic. She is not a particularly endearing person, but she is highly intelligent, determined and deliciously eccentric. I think I was particularly touched by her compassion and search for justice for the murder victims in When Last I Died (I won’t plot spoil, but if you read it you will see what I mean).  If you want to learn more about Gladys Mitchell and Beatrice Bradley, there is a well researched tribute site that is worth checking out:  http://www.gladysmitchell.com by American writer Jason Half.

If you read the clues correctly, you will reason that I will be borrowing/buying another Mrs Bradley case as soon as possible…

Picture Credits: All taken from Amazon this time, including the book jackets as I didn’t get around to scanning them from my own copies.

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Westwood by Stella Gibbons

Alighting on Westwood as the next Landing read was the first result of my rummage and dusting session, and it is a mere whippersnapper at only a couple of years of residence. Vintage Books re-printed Westwood in 2011 and I bought it along with Conference at Cold Comfort Farm in I think, 2012. I’ve since read this sequel to Cold Comfort Farm (which I enjoyed, having been terribly afraid of being disappointed) but not got around to Westwood until now. Writing this post has reminded me that at some point I would like to get hold of Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm.

Westwood

A picnic at Kew

When I first spotted the Stella Gibbons (1902 – 1989) re-prints I was probably as guilty as most people in thinking that she had written just one book. In her introduction to this edition of Westwood, Lynne Truss says, ‘This is what everyone knows about Stella Gibbons: she wrote only book, but it was a very, very good one’. Fortunately, I now know better; Gibbons went on to write in total, twenty-five novels, three volumes of short stories and four volumes of poetry. She started out as a journalist, working for amongst other papers, the Evening Standard, having studied her craft at University College, London. No mere flash in the pan then, you’d have to admit, though nothing ever attained the critical and public success of Cold Comfort.

Cold Comfort Farm, published in 1932 was Gibbons’ first novel but she began her literary career as a poet with a collection entitled The Mountain Beast in 1930. Westwood was published just after World War II, in 1946 and was set in a war ravaged London landscape. The book may be set in a city, and a damaged one at that, but Gibbons was able to find the same natural beauty in London, that she describes in Cold Comfort Farm and juxtapose it with the grim reality of blitzed houses,

‘The ruins of the small shapely houses in the older parts of the city were yellow, like the sunlit houses of Genoa; all shades of yellow; deep, and pale, or glowing with a strange transparency in the light…Pink willow-herb grew over the white uneven ground where houses had stood, and there were acres of ground covered with deserted, shattered houses whose windows were filled with torn black paper.’

Conference at Cold Comfort Farm

One of the sequels

 

Set against the background of wartime privation, Westwood is a satirical comedy of relationships focussing on two very different friends, Margaret Steggles and Hilda Wilson. Margaret is plain, bookish, serious and not particularly attractive to men (as her mother had no compunction in telling her) whereas Hilda is lively, down to earth, very pretty and has any number of service boys. Margaret feels that she is never likely to meet a man who will want to marry her, while Hilda just wants to have fun without getting too involved with any of her ‘boys’.  Independently of each other, they both encounter the same man; a distinguished, rather pompous playwright called Gerard Challis (based on real life writer Charles Morgan) who lives a somewhat charmed life despite the war, in a lovely old house called Westwood in Hampstead.

Margaret is drawn into the Challis family circle because of finding a ration book on Hampstead Heath which proves to belong to Challis’ daughter Hebe Niland. When she belatedly remembers to return it, the spoilt Hebe, rushing off to a party leaves her two children in Margaret’s care until Grantey (Mrs Grant), the family’s old retainer comes to baby sit. Margaret adores Challis’ plays and is thrilled to have the chance to make the acquaintance of the writer and his family: his elegant wife Seraphina, the beautiful Hebe and artist son-law Alex Niland. Margaret also becomes friendly with Zita Mandelbaum, a refugee who helps around the house. Zita is passionately fond of music and the two young women go to concerts together, which opens up a new world of experience for Margaret.

In contrast, Hilda meets Gerard Challis as they both travel home on the tube one evening after blackout. Gerard has spotted Hilda, admires her hair and eyes, and sees in her an opportunity for a romantic dalliance. As he gallantly offers to see her home in the dark (her torch has broken), he gives his name only as Marcus since Hilda doesn’t realise his celebrity status. Gerard is convinced that since Hilda looks like a Daphne or a Thetis, she must have a poetic soul that he can nurture, but he is sadly mistaken as he gradually realises over several months of clandestine cultural outings. Hilda feels quite sorry for ‘Marcus’; she feels he is a lonely old thing, doesn’t take him terribly seriously and has no time for mythical references,

‘Hilda was beginning to feel annoyed. She was not used to this sort of talk, and for Thetis and enchanted paths, she could not have cared less. She said suddenly:
“Are you on the B.B.C?”
“Good heavens, no!” he replied, shuddering. “You odd child, why do you ask?”
“ You talk like one of the announcers; Robert Robinson, I think his name is. “And you sound like one, too,” she added darkly.
“No,” he said after a pause, “no, I have nothing to do with that institution for perverting the taste and moulding the opinions of the masses.

Stella Gibbons

Portrait from the 1980s

 

As you can see by his maligning of the output of Britain’s national broadcaster, Gerard Challis had a well-developed sense of his own cultural superiority. However, he also was fond of moulding the minds of those around him, particularly the women in his life. Clearly there were times when this didn’t work, such as during his courtship of Seraphina twenty years previously. Gerard Challis has spent so much of his life in writing about his ‘Ideal Woman’ that he is unable to appreciate the qualities of any flesh and blood ‘ordinary’ females. Is it possible that he doesn’t actually really like women, as his wife suspects, since he keeps on wanting to ‘improve’ them,

“You were such a pet, always wanting to improve my mind.”
“My desire seems to have remained unfulfilled,” said Mr Challis dryly.
“Well, you must remember me trying to read all those alarming books you unloaded on me…I did try…only somehow there was never any time for anything;…”

There is a wonderful cast of supporting characters including Hilda’s kind-hearted, jolly mother, two American servicemen (Lev and Earl) and Lady Challis (Gerard’s mother) who runs a virtual commune in a row of converted cottages. Westwood doesn’t have a conventional love story ‘Happy Ever After’ ending though there are romantic entanglements a-plenty (don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you what does happen).  Suffice to say that by the end of the novel Margaret has learned much about herself and is a much happier person than she was at the beginning. Gibbons leavens the sadness and poignancy of the book with her sharp humour and a very funny set-piece during a picnic at Kew Gardens.

And what of Hilda, Gerard, Zita, Lev and Earl et al? Well, I’ll leave you to find that out for yourselves. Meanwhile I’m off for another rummage on the shelves. Are there any more Stella Gibbons fans out there?

Picture credit: portrait of Stella Gibbons taken from Wikipedia, with thanks.

 

Doctor Zhivago: More Russian Literature

Doctor Zhivago

My Christmas Present…

This reading year is beginning briskly with Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (Vintage Books) which is a new resident on the Landing Book Shelves. Pasternak’s epic novel was a Christmas present from He Who Put The Shelves Up to enable me to continue my Russian reading period after finishing War and Peace. I just managed to finish the latter on the cusp of the New Year and I can still feel a modest glow of success at that achievement. Now that I’ve finally read War and Peace I would like to go on to read more of Tolstoy’s work, so perhaps that might be a possibility for later this year.

I haven’t yet set any aims for this reading year but my broad plan will be to continue to tackle long neglected novels (and perhaps auto/biographies too). I was interested to come across a similar challenge on Twitter where writer Lynn Shepherd is inviting people to join her in reading Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa beginning tomorrow. A mammoth literary task if ever there was one (see @Lynn_Shepherd for more information and to join in).

I hope to tie up War and Peace with one more blog post (if I can manage to write something without plot spoiling) and I will give an update on the Doctor Zhivago progress as soon as possible. I’m toying with a couple more ideas for future reads as well, so watch this space!

Meanwhile why not drop me a line below to let everyone know about your 2014 reading challenges. Happy New Reading Year to one and all!