Grand Master, by Gladys Mitchell (writing as Stephen Hockaby): A Review

Some Background

Detective writer Gladys Mitchell (who I may have mentioned elsewhere) also wrote under two pseudonyms during her long career. In the 1960s and early ’70s, she was also Malcolm Torrie, and in this guise authored six interesting novels about a sort of architectural historian-cum-sleuth named Timothy Herring. In the 1930s, while she was also turning out the first dozen Mrs. Bradley mysteries, Mitchell also wrote under the name Stephen Hockaby. In this guise, she penned five novels and one juvenile title, placed in various historical settings. The last of these, published in the fateful year 1939 by Michael Joseph, was titled Grand Master.

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Grand Master, by Stephen Hockaby (Gladys Mitchell). First edition dust jacket, reproduced from Jason Half’s site.

I happened to look for Grand Master, and all of the Hockaby titles, in the WorldCat online catalogue when I was searching for something else entirely earlier in the summer. I found, to my surprise, that a copy was held in a university library in the United States. On a whim (and expecting my request to be rejected) I submitted an inter-library loan request through my local bibliothèque. Imagine my surprise, when, on returning home from vacation in July, I found a notification that the book was at my local branch, waiting to be collected.

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Here Comes a Chopper, by Gladys Mitchell: A Review

Almost as though the pall of war had been lifted from her writing in a single gesture, Mitchell’s 1946 novel, Here Comes a Chopper, is a return to the form, in some ways, of her pre-War work. By this time, having been a working writing for over fifteen years, Mitchell’s pacing is assured, her characterisation is deft, and the authoritative voice of Mrs. Bradley cuts through all attempts at obfuscation, although in her own good time.

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Gladys Mitchell, Here Comes a Chopper (Vintage UK, 2014)

The childhood rhyme “Oranges and Lemons”, hauntingly employed two years later in the very different context of George Orwell’s 1984, is here only indirectly invoked by the title, but every English reader of the day would probably have been able to summon the full couplet:

“Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head.”

(For those interested in a broader history of “Oranges and Lemons”, the Wikipedia entry is a good place to start).

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How I Spent My Summer Holidays or, Fun with the Viking Portable Library

I’ve been quiet on the review front this summer, for which I apologise. The lack of posting wasn’t for want of writing, but just an inability to follow anything through to completion. To mask the symptoms of my mild ennui, I have been researching the Viking Portable Library, a collection of anthology volumes covering a broad range of subjects and topics, and published, in various forms, since 1943. I first encountered the Portables while I was in college, working my way through in a bookstore. What follows is just a little extract of a much larger article that I’m working on chronicling the Portables from their earliest days to their present incarnation (and I’ll explain why the notion of that “present incarnation” is problematic in a moment).

The Viking Portable Library was the idea of American writer and critic Alexander Woollcott, who had seen similar compact volumes in the hands of British troops while reporting from Britain in the opening days of World War II. With a deal for a first volume made with The Viking Press of New York City, he assembled a book entitled As You Were, intending it as a volume that could be easily carried by soldiers as the United States entered its second year in the War in 1943, and contain an assortment of quintessentially American prose and poetry. Although Woollcott died unexpectedly just a little more than a month before publication, the book was a rousing success, going through multiple editions. The editor at Viking, Marshall A. Best, quickly sought to commission more volumes. Despite shortages and restrictions on paper and printing (all World War II-era editions include a note in the colophon indicating that the books conform to wartime standards), the early hardcover editions are remarkably durable (although the dustjackets are often in poor condition when they are present at all). Within a month of the end of the War, there were fifteen volumes in the Viking Portable Library, and a raft of new titles arrived in 1946, by which time there were twenty-seven Portables, including a volume devoted to Woollcott, himself a minor member of the Algonquin Roundtable. By the end of 1947, there were thirty-five Portables.

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The Viking Portable Library, first fifteen volumes (except for No. 14, the Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald). Note that the number 2 only appears on the spine of the Portable Steinbeck because it is the first revised edition; the highly-collectible original did not have a number. Also visible is the sail motif which appears on the Portable Carl van Doren, but without a number.

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The Rising of the Moon, by Gladys Mitchell: A Review

 

“…find out moonshine, find out moonshine!”
— Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III Sc. 1

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The Rising of the Moon (Virago Press, 1996) (Reprinted 2000)

I’ll make an admission by way of an opening: the works of Gladys Mitchell are comfortable. Considering the nastiness of the world outside (especially at this moment in history), even a past with murderers on the rampage is preferable to a treason-dripping chaos-looming present. Once the reader is immersed in Mitchell’s various worlds, they may even feel that they are in a comfortable, secure place, one which is all too often derisively described by certain self-proclaimed cognoscenti as “cozy.”

Obviously, I dislike that term for a certain loose genre of detective stories (generally defined as those that are English and published prior to the 1960s). Intended to draw a distinction between earlier writers and the “gritty realism” (read: sadism and deviance) of many modern writers, “cozy” often comes off to me as a judgmental, even as a derisory designation. But if there is anything “cozy” in the world of The Rising of the Moon, it is offset by some of the most savage murders to date in a Mitchell novel. Continue reading

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My Father Sleeps, by Gladys Mitchell: A Review

There are a number of points to recommend the writing of the late Gladys Mitchell, not the least of which is her literary styling and aplomb. Her best-remembered character, Mrs. (Later Dame) Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, is a wonderful blend of the eldritch, the omniscient, and the surreal, and the reader comes to feel, after a while, that they have encountered one of those rare immortals, an almost super-human figure which rightly and properly defies conventions like ageing and narrative vulnerabilities. In a sense, the Mrs. Bradley novels are a fantasy-land, a baroque played on the theme of the broader reality, and we are just along for the ride.

My Father Sleeps, by Gladys Mitchell (Michael Joseph, 1944)

The elusive first edition, published by Michael Joseph in 1944.

That being said, 1944’s My Father Sleeps is notably grounded in that reality which it seeks in some ways to subvert. But even hard-staked to the geographic bedrock, the spirit of place (as Lawrence Durrell might have said), of a novel like My Father Sleeps still feels a bit like a fable. It’s also a book which — moreso than usual in the case of Mitchell — demands the reader’s attention. Put another way, it’s a bit of a slog.

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All the President’s Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward: A Review

It’s pretty safe to say that Americans have learned nothing from Watergate.

Specifically, they have failed to remember that if it walks like a scandal, looks like a scandal, and quacks like a scandal, then guess what? That’s right: it’s not a duck.

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All the President’s Men, 40th Anniversary Edition, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster, 2014)

As a generally ahistorical people, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that American institutional memory doesn’t go back forty or forty-five years (although if you question the validity of preserving and displaying monuments to figures on the losing side of a rebellion 150 years ended, be prepared for shrill cries protesting about cultural heritage). Hell, many Americans when surveyed can scarcely name the three branches of government (in this, they share something with the gibbering buffoon who they in their infinite wisdom “elected” in November, 2016). Arguably, the current crop of American voters have more real, real-time information available to them than any similar group in history. Yet that access to information is not always accompanied by a proportionate intake of facts or outpouring of rational, intelligent reflection on those facts. So the fact remains that if you are under the age of about sixty, and if you are not a keen reader, historian, or student of journalism, the events surrounding the Watergate break-in and the fallout which ensued are likely not well known to you. Let me suggest, for a moment, why they should be, and why the best place to start learning those facts is the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, All the President’s Men.

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Sunset Over Soho, by Gladys Mitchell: A Review

When I recently reviewed The Worsted Viper, I suggested that a map of the Norfolk Broads would be eminently useful to following the story. While Sunset Over Soho does not rely on a similar level of geographic detail, readers will find it useful if they know the general geography of London, as well as the locations of Spain, the Canary Islands, and France. Additionally, a nodding acquaintance with the events of the evacuation of Dunkirk will also be handy.

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Sunset Over Soho, by Gladys Mitchell (Michael Joseph, 1943) *

A number of Gladys Mitchell’s novels work through proxy characters, figures who stand in for Mrs. Bradley, or who are the primary focus of the narrative, until the yellow-handed crocodillian swoops in with a cackle and makes sense of everything (or sometimes not, as events warrant). In the case of Sunset Over Soho, that role is filled by an author, David Harben, a writer of literary fiction, expert on Norman architecture, and keen boatsman. Through a flashback narrative structure, we meet Harben already knowing Mrs. Bradley, before returning to their first meeting, on the banks of the river Thames. The disjointed narrative is something of a risk, but in Sunset Over Soho it works, and makes the story more interesting.

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