The Echoing Strangers by Gladys Mitchell

published 1952

Echoing Strangers

A young schoolmaster named Tom Donagh was glancing at the advertisements in an educational weekly when he chanced to read one which interested him very much.

‘I say, Bishop,’ he said to the only other master in the Common Room, ‘what do you make of this?

Holiday Tutor required for one boy, slightly backward, during Mede Cricket Week. Opening batsman and slip fielder preferred. Public school and University essential. Give last season’s batting average, state whether Blue, bring pyjamas and black tie if called for interview. Apply Sir Adrian Caux, Mede, Hants.

‘Questionable way of getting a bit more class into a village team,’ said Bishop.

‘I shall apply, I think.’

‘What on earth for?’

‘I don’t know. I wouldn’t mind being paid for a week’s cricket, and that’s obviously what it comes to.’

[He applies, and is interviewed by Sir Adrian]

‘Well, what do you say to free board and lodging for a week, a tenner, and, if we beat Bruke, another twenty pounds?’

‘Am I up for interview, Sir Adrian, or have I got the job?’

‘Oh, you’ve got it, of course. I thought you understood that.’

‘Then I’ll take the ten pounds for tutoring your grandson, but I don’t care, otherwise, whether we win or lose, provided it’s a fairly decent game.’

‘Done,’ said Sir Adrian immediately. ‘Although the twenty pounds wouldn’t prejudice your amateur status, you know. It would only be an honorarium.’

Echoing Strangers 2

commentary: Nearly a year ago I did a post on Mitchell’s book The Worsted Viper, and the discussion in the comments took an unexpected turn: two of my blogfriends, Daniel Milford-Cottam and John Norris, debated the merits of this book, The Echoing Strangers. Briefly: Daniel hated it and had a strong moral objection to it. John understood Daniel’s points, but thought it one of her best. I strongly recommend that readers go and look at the back-and-forth at the end of the post. I was very curious, so decided I must read this one, and eventually have. And, rather boringly, I am stuck in the middle: I see the merits of both sides of the argument.

The book is very much ‘of its time’ as I say when I am trying to hint that it may have unacceptable attitudes. The key feature of the plot is a pair of god-like, beautiful twins – one of whom is deaf, and both of whom may be gay. They have been brought up apart from each other, and there are nasty goings-on in both their localities. The action of the book shifts back and forth from Sir Adrian’s country house in Hampshire, and the cottage on the water where the other twin lives in Norfolk (the boys are his grandsons).

The plot is the usual farrago, very complex and quite difficult to follow. The village cricket match is a key moment: Mitchell uses the arrangements of a small-scale local match to a) create a closed circle where very few people could have committed a murder and b) to be very funny about the local rivalries and out and out cheating –Sometimes the umpire has to play, and then
‘any of us as is out puts the long white coat on, and carries on giving no-balls against the visiting side…. The other lot, they bring an umpire of their own. Nobody wouldn’t stand for nothing different.’
The match is taken very seriously, to this extent:
‘A bowler’s wicket to-morrow, sir. John is delighted. He has been dancing on the lawn since five o’clock. The sound of the rain woke him and he has been morrising it in the nude as though demented. An enthusiastic lad, sir, for a sticky wicket.’
‘Let’s hope he catches cold,’ said Tom morosely.
(this description reminded me of the great and mysterious poem by JB Morton (Beachcomber) The Cabman Dances:

Alone on the lawn
The cabman dances;
In the dew of the dawn
He kicks and prances.
His bowler is set
On his bullet-head.
For his boots are wet
And his aunt is dead.
There on the lawn
As the light advances,
On the tide of the dawn,
The cabman dances.)

This is contrasted with the match against the local mental asylum, where enormous trouble is taken to ensure the patients win.

A character seems to change name during the course of the book – the landlord’s wife begins as Norah and later becomes Liza.

Mrs Bradley wears a hat that I liked the sound of:
a sort of fez made of orange velvet decorated with two bloody-looking cherries which dangled over her right ear
And as ever in her books, characters swimming brought out appreciative descriptions:
‘I used to watch him, yes. He was a lovely swimmer,’ she said, ‘and of course he’d only wear those little bathing trunks. But beyond he had a lovely skin, all creamy-brown and that, and no hairs on his chest, I mean, well, there was really nothing. I think he was keen on his hair, though, more than some boys, and I’m not surprised, being so pretty, all golden and that.’
I am finding it hard to make a final judgement on The Echoing Strangers. It is a weird book, there is no doubt about that, and Mitchell plainly has it in for the twins in various ways, but then she is so strange anyway, I’m not sure how much this is meant as policy and how much as her just making her book more bizarre. I don’t know. Her thoughts of deafness, gayness and eugenics are most unattractive, that’s for sure.

More books by Mitchell all over the blog – click on the label below.

Cricket matches are features of great importance in LP Hartley’s wonderful The Go Between, and in Dorothy L Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise – Lord Peter Wimsey, of course, is as good at cricket as he is at everything else. The idea of twins who can’t both be guilty (but which is which?) also pops up in Ngaio Marsh’s Surfeit of Lampreys.

B/W photo of tea at a village cricket match.

Painting of Cricket Match by Alfred Walter Bayes, from the Athenaeum.


  1. That's the thing about Mitchell's books, Moira. Some of them really are awfully weird. And the plots are sometimes quite convoluted. I can see how you're in the middle on this one. Mrs. Bradley is definitely an interesting character, though, and you certainly can't say these are 'run of the mill...'

    1. Margot, I agree with you. I find I can only read one book at a time by her - with most authors, after reading one you are tempted to go on to another. But I have to leave a gap between them, or I'd just get annoyed with their eccentricities.

  2. Moira, where’s the critical review of this books, was there a link?

    1. Curt, I don't think Daniel ever wrote a review of this book ( a pity). He discussed it with John Norris in the comments on this post of mine:

      and I wasn't able to find much about this one online at all.

  3. You spotted the hat! I'm glad you did spot the hat.

    I don't think I've picked up a Gladys since then, although I did pack them for storage rather than send them off to charity shops as I did with so many of my books. I'm still rankling about this book, partly because it's so well written and the plot actually seems to make a lot more sense than usual, incomprehensible Cricketingese aside.

    1. I DID spot the hat! I definitely have you (and John) to thank for reading this, and I am glad I have done so. But it has left me very conflicted. I can see you are unlikely to pick up more by her for now, but perhaps in the future you will bravely try her again....

  4. There's a very strange cricket match in a lunatic asylum in Robert Graves's story "The Shout"?
    Where does J.B, Morton's poem come from? I'd guess it's a parody of Walter de la Mare, but Beachcomber was famous for his interest in cabmen - remember the Anthology of Huntingdonshire Cabmen?

    1. I don't know the story, and just looked it up - very weird. It rings a bell for having been made into a film back in the day? I read the Morton poem in an anthology years and years ago, and have loved it ever since, a slightly surreal masterpiece, & yes surely one of the Huntingdonshire cabmen! I don't know any more about it than that...

  5. Pretty sure I can get through the remainder of my life, no poorer for avoiding this one.

    1. Surely you have to try some Mitchell, some time!

  6. Oh thanks for the reminder of The Dancing Cabman. I remember it from Grade 13 (Ontario ed system, back then) poetry anthology, (quite a good one), and which I still have. I immediately pulled it down from the shelf to read the whole poem, which I illustrated with, yes, a Dancing Cabman holding a flower between his teeth. I love the images the lines conjures up. (But I'd forgotten the line, His aunt is dead.)

    And then I had to run and read your review of A Surfeit of Lampreys, which I seem to have missed (the review I mean, not the book). I remember liking it, specifically for how the young Kiwi was caught up with the visiting family during their exile in NZ, and how she now travels halfway round the world to London, and there they are, taking her under their wing. If I could find my vanished copy, I'd have another go at it. (Or perhaps I shouldn't. Just let it glow in my memory?)

    1. Very advanced of the school system, sounds like a good anthology. It is an immensely visual poem, we all have our image of the cabman dancing.
      When I first read Lampreys, that was exactly how I felt about it, I loved the brave young woman becoming part of this strange family. It didn't live up to that on my recent reading, but your description reminded me of that marvellous opening, and the feelings it gave me first time round. I hadn't travelled any distance at all, but I'd been a young woman in a strange, adventurous and slightly scarey situation, as have we all, and it resonated.

  7. Now I'm conflicted. I kind of want to read a Gladys Mitchell because I've only ever seen the TV series which was a hoot but, I'm told, not very true to the source material and I would like to make my own comparison. As I am a bit of a sucker for books featuring cricket this one looks perfect at first glance. But do I want to read a book that is so morally abhorrent? At least to some readers? And if I decide not to on that basis where does it all end? I've been thinking about that a lot as every day I wake up to news of yet another actor/politician/famous person is accused of abusing their power in horrible ways. I'm developing a very long list of things I must now avoid lest my moral compass go completely off course. I suppose this is a #firstworldproblem but still.

    1. I KNOW Bernadette, it's a problem for the ages, and it doesn't get any easier. How do you separate the art from the person. If you like cricket then I would give this one a go - the views are definitely weird, but didn't make me condemn book or author.
      You have to separate the TV series off in your mind! I agree - great fun. But Diana Rigg in fabulous clothes (and my CiB side appreciated them very much) - no no no. Mrs Bradley, it is emphasized over and over, is old, and ugly, and phenomenally badly-dressed...

  8. I am glad you reviewed this book, and I am glad I came back and found it after I missed it the first time, but I don't think I will seek it out to read. I do want to try at least 2 or 3 more books by Mitchell sometime, though.

    1. Tracy, there are plenty to pick from. I read her books in random order, no attempt to be chronological. I've just seen that the previous comment is from Bernadette, which must have been just before she died. What a sad thing to think there will be no more comments from her. it is a sad loss to all of us.

    2. I know, Moira. When I was commenting on Elly Griffiths' The Dark Angel, the first comment there was from Bernadette, and she was looking forward to listening to the book. I miss her so much.

    3. Yes me too. When I see her comments now I try to think of it as a positive thing, and not too sad: she lives on and is not forgotten.


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