Saturday, 6 June 2015

Spotted Hemlock by Gladys Mitchell



published 1958



Spotted Hemlock



[Laura is getting ready to interview a suspect, under the eye of Mrs Bradley and her nephew Carey]

Laura had given considerable thought to an age-old problem. What, she wondered, would be the best things to wear for this interview with the bereaved husband… she knew that both men and women, particularly young men and young women, were influenced, even if unconsciously, by the clothes worn by interlocutors…

Laura settled for a well-cut suit with matching accessories.

‘You look very nice,’ said Dame Beatrice, ‘One visualizes the card-case and detects the unmistakable odour of Debrett.’

‘Oh Lord! All I aimed at was to appear neat but not gaudy.’ Laura ostentatiously consulted a small and extremely elegant gold wrist-watch, her husband’s birthday gift.

[She decides to pretend to be a Sunday School teacher]

[Carey says:] ‘If you go attempting to pass yourself off as a doer of good works, looking like that, you’ve a nasty surprise coming to you my girl.’

Laura glanced down at her suit.

‘Nonsense,’ she said firmly. ‘You don’t have to look like Frau Frump to teach in a Sunday School. Besides, I shan’t pretend I still do.’

 
observations: Laura’s attempt to fool the grieving widower fails and he says, splendidly:
‘Oh I see! You’re from the police! And now you can go back to whatever God-forsaken police barracks you’re attached to, you narking female busy, and let me get on with my job.’
‘Narking female busy’ is certainly the best insult I have come across in a while, and one I’m hoping to drop into my conversation a fair bit - I feel that Vicki/Skiourophile will share my respect for it. ‘Busy’ in this context is a slang word for a policeman, generally used by those who might be avoiding the constabulary – ‘the busies are on to us’.

Spotted Hemlock combines the best and the worst of Mitchell’s books – on the good side, plenty of excellent scenes like this, with funny, imaginative moments and a propensity to take clothes seriously. The plot is completely preposterous – well, that’s neutral, or a given, with Mitchell. But this one does become very dull as they chase around after different people, and try to sort out two separate young women, and deal with a headless ghost on horseback, and pranks by young people, and rats in the cellar (that probably all sounds more exciting than it is). I lost interest about two-thirds of the way through, and the explanation at the end did not make up for the boredom. It was one of the times when you just say ‘Oh. So X did it. Oh.’

The events deal with two agricultural colleges – one for men, one for women – all Mitchell’s colleges, and their students and staff, seem to blend into one after a while, they are not distinguishable.

The more interesting moments include a visit to a holiday camp – Mrs Bradley actually books a chalet there, though I suspect she is not going to follow through with that. And Laura always cheers things up, and there is a fine (if rather pointless) scene in which she takes her toddler into a children’s shop, where he wreaks havoc and demands a potty.

The phrase ‘neat but not gaudy’ is one that pops up in older books with annoying frequency: it has a smug and self-congratulatory feel to it. Louisa M Alcott, Dorothy L Sayers and Josephine Tey all use it, but it’s not as if ‘neat’ and ‘gaudy’ are either linked or in opposition in normal life. So I was glad to find out that an earlier version of it reads: neat, but not gaudy, as the devil said when he painted his bottom red and tied up his tail with sky-blue ribbon.

The picture – woollen suit with fur wrap from 1958 – comes from the ever wonderful Kristine’s photostream.















14 comments:

  1. I feel the same way about Gladys Mitchell. She is one of those writers I go back to hoping I'll like her better than I did last time. Usually I don't, but I can recommend The Rising of the Moon.
    Yes, splendid insult!

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    1. When I first sampled her, a good many years ago, I wasn't very keen - I found that weirdness discomfiting. But now I enjoy her a lot more. I'm not sure if I've read Rising of the Moon or not - I will go and look up!

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  2. Thanks for this Moira, it's been over a decade since I tried one of her books but am girding myself to try again ...

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    1. AS I say above - didn't used to like her, but enjoy her more now. You might be lucky too.

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  3. A very enjoyable review. My feeing is that "the Great Gladys" is best in small doses, but she's certainly different.

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    1. That's a very good description Martin! I am always surprised by the way she seems to fall within the usual confines of a village/school/country house mystery - but absolutely everything else except the setting is completely unlike every other book...

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  4. I like that insult too, Moira. I'll have to see if I can contrive a reason to use it... And in general, I do like Mitchell's way with dialogue and wit; she could do both well. As you say, with her work, there's always a sort of mixed bag. Still, there's just about always something...interesting in her stories, I'll put it that way.

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    1. Yes, I agree - there are moments of great joy, which cancel out the moments when you sigh a lot...

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  5. You remind me that I have had a book on my wishlist since, er, books were invented (?) about stripes and the Devil: Michel Pastoureau - The Devil's Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/sep/15/historybooks.highereducation2 or funnier review: http://www.artcritical.com/2003/04/01/the-devils-cloth-a-history-of-stripes-and-striped-fabric-by-michel-pastoureau/)

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  6. Whoa that looks interesting - and that has been on your radar for a long time. I think you should read it for all of us Vicki.

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    1. You can't avoid the Great Gladys forever Col, you'll have to read something some time!

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  8. I shall keep trying Gladys Mitchell over the many decades she wrote the Mrs. Bradley series. I only have one in house (Watson's Choice) which is earlier than The Hearse on May Day. But there are several others I want to try.

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    1. I have really come round to her over the years, Tracy: when I was younger I found it disconcerting that they seemed as though they would be classic crime stories, then became strange and surreal. But now I like that...

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