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.
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.
Several elements, therefore, are at play. A mysterious and displaced body is found after one of the nightly German raids on London, but it’s clearly not that of a victim of the bombs. Mrs. Bradley, who is working as a medical doctor in her district, is intrigued, especially when the discovery is punctuated by an attack on David Harben, a writer who lives on a small boat anchored on the Thames. Harben met Mrs. Bradley several months previously, when he mysteriously became lumbered with two nuns and several children fleeing the first warnings of the Blitz. One of the nuns, Sister Mary Dominic, even discusses life and literature with Harben, to his surprise, as he cannot remember ever having spoken with a nun. The chance meeting with a famous psychoanalyst and amateur sleuth is fortuitous, and Mrs. Bradley invites the refugee nuns and their young charges to stay in the house she has rented, further up the Thames and therefore hopefully out of danger from German bombs. Meanwhile Harben has also encountered a mysterious and fascinating woman while swimming in the river. This woman, who is later identified as Inez Heurta but who initially identifies herself as “Leda”, leads him to a house where a man has just died, saying that she has killed him. Is the mysterious death related to the body shown to Mrs. Bradley several months later, which was poisoned with arsenic and has been dead for some time?
Harben’s adventures continue in Book IV, appropriately titled “Ulysses”, in which he is set upon and shanghaied, ending up in the Canary Islands and Spain, and desperate to make his way back to England. In the company of two marooned elderly Englishwomen, who hire a boat, Harben manages to sail back to the south coast and so return to London, from which he had been kidnapped some weeks before. But why was he removed from the scene in the first place? Is it Leda/Inez’s doing, or something even more sinister.
In the midst of the tale is a story which Mitchell most seems to have wanted to tell, that of the unparalleled bravery of the pilots of boats in the little flotilla which crossed the English Channel after the rout of the British Army at Dunkirk (French: Dunkerque). Between 26 May and 4 June, 1940, military and civilian craft were involved in a desperate effort to rescue as many soldiers (of a wide variety of nationalities) from the beaches of the French town of Dunkirk following their defeat and encirclement by the German army in the aftermath of the Battle of France. By placing Harben and Sister Mary Dominic in the thick of this event, Mitchell lays to rest any doubts that the reader might have had regarding the writer and his culpability in the events of the book. I also view this section as a hefty slice of wartime patriotism on the part of Mitchell, one which she could not have written closer to the event, as at the time, to many, it seemed like the beginning of the end of the British resistance to Hitler (as indeed it might have been, had it not been for the RAF). Historically, it’s fascinating, at the time, it must well have been more than a little reassuring. When you feel as though your world is on the verge of collapse, little victories are the best medicine.
Also of interest is an oddity in the Mitchell canon thus far: although the books have referenced each other before (several references, for example, to the Ditch family, Carey Lestrange’s pig farm, and the events of Dead Men’s Morris occur in the succeeding books), this is the first time that they have been chronologically explicit. Sunset Over Soho takes place *around* the events of Mitchell’s novel from three years before, Brazen Tongue, for Mrs. Bradley’s activities during that affair are expressly referenced. This is an interesting side note, particularly when several of the books which preceded Sunset Over Soho (Hangman’s Curfew, When Last I Died, Laurels Are Poison, The Worsted Viper) do not appear to have taken place during the war years. Sunset, on the other hand, definitely takes place between Whitmonday (late in May), 1939 and June, 1940. It also muddies Laura Menzies’s timeline somewhat, as far as the novels go, for after her prominent roles in Laurels Are Poison and The Worsted Viper she is completely absent from Sunset Over Soho. The problem of Laura Menzies’s timeline is compounded, at least slightly, by the presence of Inspector Pirberry, who did in The Worsted Viper and is here described as Mrs. Bradley’s old friend. I have come to suspect that Sunset Over Soho itself is the anomaly, and that the other books between it and Brazen Tongue are all meant to take place in the 1930s, prior to the Phoney War. Where this places the follow-up to Sunset Over Soho, My Father Sleeps, as it both includes Laura and takes place in a non-wartime Scotland, is a question I will tackle with the review of that next book.
Speaking of My Father Sleeps, both it and Sunset Over Soho appear in a series of seven French translations of Gladys Mitchell’s novels. Published by Éditions 10/18’s Grands Détectives series in the early 2000s, these translations by Katia Holmes are serviceable and intelligent and do an excellent job of rendering Miss Mitchell’s literary prose into French. Francophones will certainly enjoy them, and I will be relying upon the French edition of My Father Sleeps (translated as La Malédiction du Clan Stewart), as it is literally — and irritatingly — the only Mrs. Bradley title for which I cannot find a print copy in English (I will read the Kindle edition in a pinch, but for long stretches of reading I still prefer print). As the Kindle editions of Mrs. Bradley are not available outside of the American Kindle market (to the best of my knowledge), if you’re outside of the United States and trying to read all of the Mrs. Bradley novels, and you don’t have My Father Sleeps (or any one of the seven published titles) but you happen to have reasonably good command of French, consider trying it in translation.
Overall, Sunset Over Soho is an extremely enjoyable read, and undeserving of its status among the infrequently reprinted volumes of Miss Mitchell’s oeuvre. The interesting narrative structure is both surprising and challenging, showing Mitchell once again is interested in flaunting the reader’s expectations, as well as detective story conventions. Mrs. Bradley delights as usual, and neatly bookends the tale. It is also a valuable war novel in part, and demonstrates again the variability and complexity of Mitchell’s writing. Four and a half stars.
Reviewed 6 April 2017.