[David Harben, who is staying on a boat on the Thames, goes out for an early morning walk. He comes to a boathouse]
On the steps was seated a girl. She looked so marble-white and sat so still that she might have been sculptured there; but the moment the mist rolled back, she slid soundlessly into the water, and began to swim lazily downstream.
Believing she had not noticed his approach, Harben pulled off his clothes, dived cleanly into the river, and set himself to swim after her…
[he catches up with her, but she swims off again]
In the water she was more than his match, but
there was never a swimmer yet who could match a runner on the bank.
Regardless of the fact that he was naked, for the river banks were deserted, he swam to the bank, climbed out, and ran along the grassy edge of the river. The wind on his cold, wet body cut like knives.
commentary: My friend Noah Stewart recently decided to read all the Gladys Mitchell books, and proudly announced this binge on his blog. But then, in a shocking twist, he was defeated by them, he has now said he cannot do it – and he piles on a lot of the blame to this specific book. I strongly recommend his hilarious blogpost explaining all this – the original challenge to himself, and his reasons for backing off. It’s important to read the comments too, which give some spirited defences of Mitchell.
I had recently read Sunset Over Soho when Noah laid into it, and it seems to me that in fact we agree about much of it, but that I quite liked it in the end anyway. I did think it was a strange and mixed book – all Mitchell books are somewhat weird, but I found this one exceptionally uneven.
It has a cracker of an opening – London in the Blitz, and series sleuth and terrific heroine Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley is visiting rest centres to check on those suffering in the attacks. A shifting building suddenly reveals a hidden corpse, one that has been there for some time.
Because of the pattern on the victim’s dressing-gown, Mrs B is able to suggest a fruitful line of research, and then we go back to hear a very strange story of events in the summer before the war started.
David Harben, the young man on the boat, is disturbed by a young woman who says there is a dead man in a nearby house. There is some back-and-forthing, people appear and disappear, a boat goes missing, and a message is left on the boat.
Mrs Bradley works with the police to try to find out what is going on. Various people are attacked in Soho, and there are self-consciously sinister foreigners around: sailors with earrings and swarthy complexions. I couldn’t keep track of who was being rightly or wrongly identified.
There’s more about David’s boating adventures, still being recalled by Mrs B. War breaks out, and some nuns and children are evacuated from London. David helps them, and they end up in Mrs Bradley’s house. One of the nuns has some philosophical discussions with David.
Next, Dunkirk. David and the Dominican nun go and rescue a lot of British soldiers. (You weren’t expecting that, were you?)
Then, there is a whole other boating adventure when David is abducted and left adrift, but manages to rescue himself and then get back to England in an adventurous way with some stranded English ladies.
By this time my head was spinning and I wasn’t following the story at all. Police and Mrs B are busy discussing this, and suggesting that David has been economical with the truth – all these stories come from him – and may be guilty of lesser or greater crimes. Certainly we are encouraged to believe he is withholding something in the version we get to read, which was quite disconcerting, as he is a proper hero-type.
In the end everything is sorted out, though Mitchell takes us right up to the closing lines of the book for the full explanation – well, I say full, as full as she ever gives, or as I ever understand. I would in no way ever want to write a detailed explanation of the plots of any of her (highly enjoyable) books.
At one point we have this:
‘The Yellow Slugs,’ said Mrs Bradley with relish. ‘You must have read it.’--which I investigated: it seems to be a short story by HC Bailey, from a 1935 collection called Mr Fortune Objects.
I very much enjoyed the descriptions of London in the blitz, - this 1942 picture from the Imperial War Museum collection shows a Rest Centre like the one in the book:
There was the prostitute saying ‘Makes business chancy, these air raids’, the streets of Soho in all their glory, the sinister pub, the gym, the general air of lowlife and highlife. I was less interested in the description of Dunkirk – although it did remind me of Lissa Evans’ splendid Their Finest (Hour and a Half), book and film (I feel the nun could have been added for propaganda purposes to the boat in the film-within-the-film).
There was generally too much messing about in boats – quite different ones from those in The Worsted Viper (published the same year, but set before the war). However as I said then, Mitchell did like to get people swimming in rivers. The two above are forever skinnydipping – they don’t seem to like clothes much at all. (She is called Leda, and has affinities with Melusine and mermaids). As I pointed out before, the poet Philip Larkin commented favourably on naked women swimming in the Mitchell oeuvre, and, again, must have loved this one.
After I’d written this, I looked the book up on the excellent and invaluable Gladys Mitchell tribute site, The Stone House, and was glad to see that the expert reviewer there, Jason Half, had much the same feelings that I did.
One more thought from Noah:
[Sunset Over Soho] contains a paragraph that attempts to communicate that two characters are having sex which is one of the most unintentionally hilarious things I have ever seen in print; like someone describing how to participate in an activity that they’d never actually experienced but only been told about.I'm not going there, but the book did, after all, inspire me to find the second image above: Night Swimming by The Master of the Cite de Dames, from the Athenaeum and what a wonderful picture it is. It is from Christine de Pisan’s 14th century work, the Epistle of Othea, and shows Hermaphroditus bathing with a nymph.
Top picture of The Swimming Hole by Charles Courtney Curran from the Athenaeum website.
Picture of rest centre from the Imperial War Museum collection.