Friday, 13 January 2017

Book of 1959: The Man Who Grew Tomatoes by Gladys Mitchell

 
published 1959


 
 
Tomatoes 1959
 


[Dame Beatrice] went up to her room, presumably to dress for dinner, but, having put on her dark fur coat and matching toque so she did not, in Laura Gavin’s partly-idiomatic expression, ‘stand out against the sky-line’, she slipped downstairs by way of the servants’ staircase at the far end of the long gallery and left the house with a secrecy which went unmarked except by Ethel, who had conceived a strange, protective affection for her elderly inquisitor.

‘And I’ll not give you away,’ muttered Ethel, ‘seeing you be about your lawful occasions.’

‘And what are you muttering about? Saying your prayers?’  demanded a housemaid, who, more intelligent than Ethel, grudged that lover of tomatoes her superior position in the household.

‘P’raps,’ said Ethel, ‘and p’raps not.’

 
 
commentary: This is my 1959 book for the Crimes of the Century meme over at Rich Westwood’s Past Offences blog.

The crime queens Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie produced books in that year, and particular favourites of mine too, but I have already featured Singing in the Shrouds and Cat Among the Pigeons on the blog. So I looked to see what Gladys Mitchell had done, and came across this title, which I had never heard of. (I feel you would remember it if you had read it.) It is quite hard to get hold of, but I stuck with it, found one and read it, and was very glad I had. Gladys Mitchell and Dame Beatrice Bradley had both dialled down the eccentricities this time, and it was an enjoyable and entertaining read. (The eccentricities, surrealism and endless pointless tangents are occasionally beguiling, but other times I find them too much). In fact for the first quarter or so if you read it blind you wouldn’t guess it was a Mitchell story – and you can’t say that about many of her books.

Hugh Camber has inherited the family estate, after the unexpected deaths of his cousins, a father and son. When he moves to the big house he finds the servants are all in the process of fleeing, and the village is semi-hostile. Anonymous letters appear, and he also has to fight off the encroaching moves of another family member – the widowed Mrs Hal and her delicate son. When it all gets too much for him he sensibly calls in Mrs Bradley.

The action mostly takes place in Norfolk, with some dashing off to Scotland, and Mitchell manages to make the rurals’ dialect forms endearing – unlike Ngaio Marsh who somehow never brings off her West Country yokels. ‘That’ seems to be an all-purpose word in the local talk:
‘Oh sir! That happen.’
‘I know. Where is Mrs Hal?’
‘That put the drawing-room to rights. I only do it this morning, Mr Camber, but it seems that isn’t satisfied.’

The business of the tomatoes is all-pervading, as you would guess from the title. It seems possible that Mitchell found out an interesting fact or possibility about tomatoes and built the whole book round it – normally at this point I’d be grumping that she should have made it a short story, not a full-length entry, but I reckon she just about gets away with it.

My favourite part of the book has nothing to do with tomatoes or (really) the murder. Mrs B is investigating a former boyfriend of the heroine, who explains that he had proposed to Catherine Tolley at a Ball in the Assembly Rooms in Norwich during the Festival of Britain in 1951. He explains his role in the many different local Festival celebrations -‘hoped I’d be Parson Woodforde in the pageant but a better man got it’ - and discusses the choirs: ‘Interesting Magnificat and a really beautiful Nunc Dimittis.’

And then we get this:
‘I cannot imagine,’ said Dame Beatrice, gazing with mild benevolence at Maitland, ‘why Miss Tolley did not wish to marry you.’
--which I choose to understand as a straight comment, no irony. The Man Who Grew Tomatoes is very funny in a quiet, witty way.

As a book of 1959: it is full of class-consciousness, some very odd views on heredity, and a hero who drinks an awful lot of whiskey before driving to the station.

The passage above could scarcely be more 1959 – the maids, the servants’ staircase, dressing for dinner, and wearing a fur coat so you won’t be noticeable.

Mitchell sometimes is very good on clothes, but in this particular book they scarcely feature – a missed opportunity, I felt, with the awful Mrs Hal. We get her Dresden-china make-up and 5-inch high heels, and I’d love to know what she wore inbetween.

Anyway, happy to find this splendid fur coat picture, which I felt had a look of Mrs Bradley. It’s of Florence Julia Bach, an American painter and sculptor, and comes from the Smithsonian.

There are plenty more Mitchell books on the blog – click on the label below.























17 comments:

  1. I was hoping someone would review this book for Rich's challenge, as that title is quite bizarre. Glad it was a worthwhile read for you, sounds better than my recent Mitchell read - Here Comes the Chopper.

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    1. In the end, I just couldn't resist the title! Yes it does seem better than Chopper, having just read your review. Definitely one of the better ones.

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  2. It certainly is the sort of title that would get your attention right away, Moira! Mitchell wrote a great number of Mrs. Bradley books, so it'd be hard to have read all of them. I admit I haven't. This one sounds like an interesting mystery, and perhaps not quite so convoluted as hers can sometimes be?

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    1. I have read loads, but still feel there's plenty more to go! But I like that - sometimes I'm in the mood for Gladys, and I know there'll be something new to catch my eye.

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  3. Yes, that is very much how I imagine Mrs Bradley! Great choice of photo!

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    1. Thanks, yes, I was very pleased with this one.

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  4. This book sounds interesting. I was very surprised at that title. Doesn't sound like a Mrs. Bradley title at all, not that I have great experience in that area. K. C. Constantine wrote a mystery called The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes.

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    1. Now I'm wondering what slow tomatoes are...
      Mitchell did do weird titles though, so from that point of view maybe not so surprising.

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  5. I'm glad to know that this is one of the intriguing Mitchells worth reading. The more I sample her work, the more I marvel at her skill at creating characters, her love of children's innate curiosity and intelligence, and her riveting imagination. That some of her plots fail is of no concern to me anymore. I have yet to read any duds...but then I'm doing my best to avoid those that I know are her lesser books.

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    1. I agree with you: I'll give anything by her a go, and there will always be something to enjoy - or at least she hasn't failed me yet.

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  6. Available on Kindle for $3.99! Someone Up There likes me.

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    1. Good for you, very lucky - I couldn't find it on UK Kindle, and paid a lot more than that for a 2nd hand hard copy...

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  7. I seem to remember reading this one years and years ago, but I've no real memory of much about it except that her chauffeur George had more of a role than usual. The telly version cast him in the Watson role, but when he appears at all in the books he often seems to be a walk-on part.

    The description 'conventional' doesn't really apply to Mitchell, but this seemed to be much more of a conventional crime novel than she normally produced (although my memories are very, very hazy...)Until I read your note, I thought that the lady in the coat was Edith Sitwell. This is rather how I would cast her on Film or TV, but I suspect that to portray her exactly as Mitchell describes her would require something from the Jim Henson Creature Shop!

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    1. Oh yes, it does look like Edith S! And you're right, it would be hard to find someone who matched the picture in one's head. certainly not Diana Rigg, much as I like her in other contexts.
      Yes this was much more conventional thankful others - though still had its moments. George is quite Watson-ish in this one, yes.

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    2. Auto-complete fail. *more conventional than others*

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  8. Just realised that there's a chapter in Roger Ackroyd titled "The Man who Grew Vegetable Marrows." Now I'm wondering if this is a nod towards that...

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    1. Oh excellent catch! I hadn't noticed that...

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