“…find out moonshine, find out moonshine!”
— Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III Sc. 1
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.
Told from the point of view of the elder of two boys, Simon and Keith Innes, The Rising of the Moon is strikingly good at getting a young male narrator right. Sim and Keith have gone to live with their elder brother in a town outside of London, following the death of their parents. The town’s name and location are never clearly specified by Mitchell, but clearly somewhere downriver along the Thames. Knowing that Mitchell used real local geography in many of her books, I suspect that the town may have been a slightly modified version of Rainham, Essex, although the place-names have been changed, many features of the town match settings described in the book (I welcome any corrections or comments made by readers based on better local knowledge). The town, however, is about to be the setting for a series of savage murders of young women, each by the light of the moon.
In their town, off the Thames at “the narrowest bottle-neck out of London,” the narrator Sim indicates, they are known to most of the local residents, and have carved out for themselves a pleasant life. Their sixpence pocket money is often “mortgaged to the sweet shop,” and they spend other free hours exploring in the old junk shop operated by old Mrs. Cockerton, who has promised, she says, to leave them each a gift in her will, taking a liking to them as they are young boys, rather than girls or young women, who she particularly dislikes. Sim and Keith live with their brother, Jack, his wife June and their toddler nephew Tom, and a lodger of whom June is palpably jealous, Christina. Both Sim and Keith, with an innocence that is verging on pubescence, are in love with Christina, who is young and dark-haired and beautiful. Until the murders begin, Sim and Keith have a rather idyllic existence, and enjoy the things that their town has to offer, including a travelling circus which has arrived just before Easter Sunday, to their intense delight (in those simpler times, when the promise of amateur gymnasts and a few tired, formerly wild animals is sufficient to fire the imagination and delight of the young).
Sim and Keith are abroad one night, excited by and hoping to get a glimpse of the circus, when they observe a figure carrying a knife in the moonlight. The knife is described as something which might be used to cut leather, and is carried by a mysterious figure in the darkness, which the boys follow for a short while before being spooked and fleeing home. Sim and Keith learn the next day that a young woman has been killed, although her murder is quickly blamed on a Portuguese circus worker. However, as more bodies begin to appear, and as even Sim and Keith’s brother Jack falls under suspicion, the town’s terror grows. Can Mrs. Bradley apply her intellect to the problem and put an end to the reign of murder and fear?
This is very much a no-frills Mrs. Bradley tale. Indeed, the crocodilian psychiatry specialist does not make her first appearance until Chapter Nine, the scene having been set — and many of the clues presented — by the young narrator Simon. He and his brother Keith continue as the central characters of the novel, and we know very little as a result that they do not, but nothing known by the other characters. The deliberations of the police, or of Mrs. Bradley herself, are largely kept from the reader, It almost seems as though the book wasn’t begun or intended as a Mrs. Bradley novel at all, although Mitchell was not averse to experimenting with and modifying the conventional structures of the detective story at her whim. So interesting and unusual is the construction, and so different is the tone of The Rising of the Moon that the book is exceptional, even in Mitchell’s Mrs. Bradley canon, which very much runs the creative gamut. There is no Laura Menzies as foil (despite her central role in the previous novel, My Father Sleeps), no extraneous family (again, despite their previous appearances), and comparatively little shilly-shallying about with the police (represented by the local Inspector, Evan Seabrook, along with his Sergeant Hobbs and Constable Dewberry). Structurally, the book is quite different too: the often-present quotes at the head of chapters are gone, replaced merely by three short passages at the beginning of the book. For Mitchell, who in this period of her career evidently took great pleasure in literary reference and quotation, all of this is at the least atypical, even unusual. What explanation do I offer? Well, at the moment, let us just say that I am working on a hypothesis, which I hope to share at some point in the near future. Until then, fellow reader, your guess is as good as mine.
Regardless, The Rising of the Moon is an excellent book, one of the few of Mitchell’s work to be reprinted multiple times and to enjoy enduring popularity, and for that, we must be grateful. Editions from St. Martin’s Press (1984), Paperjacks (Canada, 1986), Virago Press (1996), and even a French edition (2001) make this one of the easiest of Mitchell’s titles to find and read. This tale has served as the introduction for many to the works of Gladys Mitchell, and with good reason. If you’ve never read a book by Mitchell before, this is a good place to start. If you’ve read others of her works and enjoyed them, then give this one a go: it’s worth your time.
Reviewed 25 July 2017.