I sometimes read other reviews in preparation for writing my own. There are several reasons for this: I like to check to make certain that I haven’t missed something blindingly obvious that all other readers have caught. Equally, I already have ideas in mind when I’m ready to write about something I’ve read, and I don’t want to approach a review if I don’t have something new or different or relevant to say. Generally speaking, I prefer to add something to a discussion.
In reading around for this review, I happened on a fairly negative and dismissive comment on Faintley Speaking, and it rather annoyed me. Figuring out why I was annoyed didn’t take long. I realised that I took it somewhat personally because as authors go, I’m really starting to find that Gladys Mitchell was an exceptionally talented writer, and the casual dismissal of her work by someone who couldn’t be bothered to spell “colloquialism” correctly is just a bit beyond the pale.
Now let me begin the review proper with a note that choosing to defend Faintley Speaking is a somewhat fraught task, because although it is an entertaining book, it is also one with some key problems.
As the story begins a man walks angrily though the rain, having been expelled from his lodgings for non-payment. In a disturbed mood, he answers a ringing phone box that someone else has just departed. On the other end of the line is an unknown woman, giving instructions for collecting a package from the nearby railway station. In an inexplicable fit, the man, Mandsell, actually goes to the station, picks up the parcel for the woman he does not know, and takes it to a dodgy little shop where he hands it over to an unpleasant man.
A short while later, a young female teacher goes missing from a visit with a schoolboy charge to the town of Torbury, but unfortunately, this is not immediately evident as the schoolboy himself decided to lose his annoying teacher first in town, and only realised much later than she had actually gone missing. Both Miss Faintley and the young Mark Street (disappointed that he was not allowed by his parents to undertake his own expedition to France with a schoolboy chum) were staying in a holiday hotel in the coastal town of Cromlech, along with a strange old woman called Bradley and her young friend, Laura Menzies. As luck would have it, Laura and Mark are out hiking (and trespassing with glib delight) when they discover the body of the missing teacher. Grimly, Laura must go undercover at the school where Miss Faintley taught. Will Laura determine what the parcels were that Miss Faintley was known to have delivered to the same seedy shop as Mandsell, and why her failure to handle the final one resulted in her death?
Many of the familiar Mitchell elements are present in Faintley Speaking: the impecunious author, Mandsell, waiting for his publisher to get around to paying him his advance, who inadvertently sets the entire plot into motion, is an unwitting actor. The young schoolboy, Mark Street, who is drawn into events by his inadvertent proximity to his nature studies mistress, the mysterious Lillian Faintley, finds himself drawn into the novel’s first act as well. Street is a sympathetic character, as schoolboys sometimes can be, whose bonus trip to the caves at Lascaux is another of the interesting asides that are often taken in a Gladys Mitchell novel. The trip is later worked rather artfully back into the plot. Laura Menzies, who once again serves as the physical avatar for Mrs. Bradley, is also present to bring action and youthful expression to the plot (although Mrs. Bradley, now of undeniably advanced age, but seemingly ageless at the same time, is not depicted as in any way feeble, despite over twenty-five years of solving — and occasionally committing — murders). Even Alice Boorman, a minor character in several of Mitchell’s novels since Laurels Are Poison, makes a brief, late reappearance in her capacity as a botanist.
Mitchell also invokes familiar ground in what are roughly three sections to the book: the classic holiday hotel for the first act, and the familiar Mitchell setting of academia (in this case, Kindleford School) for the novel’s second act. Much of the final act revolves around a voyage along the south coast of England and around the Isle of Wight on Laura’s boat, the Canto V (which I am assuming is a reference to Dante, specifically the fifth Canto of the Inferno), and at least some of the localities mentioned can be found on maps: Mitchell’s south coast was not invented. The story, which follows a number seemingly unconnected threads to a surprising conclusion, is one of personalities over events, to be certain. There is the usual joke about Mrs. Bradley’s saurian appearance (she is referred to unkindly, as usual, as Mrs. Croc, and occasionally compared to a “sand lizard”).
Without giving away too much of the plot, it is also fair to note that although the mystery is entertaining, the details of the criminal gang and what they are up to is somewhat frivolous, and the story more or less falls apart in the final pages of the third act. Parcels are being sent with plaster statues within, and inside those are different ferns… why? The concept of the ferns is artful and a great tribute to the flora of Britain, but at the same time its bewilderingly complicated as a means of communication for what seems at its heart to be a simple smuggling operation. The scene near the book’s end where two villains square off to fight, each muttering: “Lastrea Filix-Mas” and “Asplenium Fontanum” in turn, is frankly ludicrous. But if this is near to the end of the journey, then some silliness is not entirely unexpected, even if it doesn’t quite match the quality of the first two-thirds of the book.
Faintley Speaking is, however, a detective novel that requires some investment in Mitchell’s canon in order to derive the full benefit. Readers looking for a better stand-alone story by Mitchell should start elsewhere, perhaps with one of the classics of the late ‘30s or ‘40s (especially Come Away, Death, or St. Peter’s Finger). That much being said, it was an odd choice for St. Martin’s Press, for example, to reprint in the early 1980s, as it would have been moderately difficult for the uninitiated reader to know just exactly what the hell was going on. Finally, the peculiar cover art of the St. Martin’s edition is another sticking point for me. It looks a bit like someone drawing a classic British telephone box with only the knowledge that it was supposed to be red, and having a picture of the police public call box from Doctor Who to go on (seriously, look closely at that picture: it’s a skinny red TARDIS), Faintley Speaking was a weird reprint choice. But even so, it remains an interesting excursion through England of the 1950s, and the England of Gladys Mitchell, who populated her world with eccentrics, villains, ‘characters,’ and, occasionally, an ordinary, admirable schoolboy or two.
Reviewed 23 September 2016.