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.
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).
Despite this set-up, and the possible directions that it could have taken the reader, Mitchell chooses to confine herself very tightly to the literal meaning. Whether the chopper will be chopping more than one head or not is part of the tension of the story.
Schoolmaster and English minor poet Roger Hoskyn is looking forward to a hiking holiday over the Easter break from his teaching job with his friend Bob, but Bob has injured his ankle, and his sister, Dorothy Woodcote, runs along to tell Roger that the holiday is off. They end up on a bus, and instead of returning to her brother, Dorothy elects to go walking with him, and after a long day’s hike, they find themselves lost in the wilds of the Home Counties, and Roger, blaming the map, inadvertently leads them further off the beaten path until they find themselves before a grand house. They stop to ask for directions and, curiously, are asked to join a formal dinner, in an effort to avoid that most terrible of social faux pas, thirteen seated at the table. However, a greater faux pas is committed when the master of the house, Mr. Lingfield, goes missing and does not appear at all for dinner. Events are unsettled, and not merely because of the presence of the famous criminologist and psychiatrist, Mrs. Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, who clearly sees that there is mischief afoot.
Here Comes a Chopper is a much more traditional and straightforward detective story than its three immediate predecessors, and it packs in the Bradley-esque charm and mystery with deft aplomb. There is a lightness in the characterisations, almost as though Mitchell wrote what was, for her, a reasonably traditional tale, and she wrote it with a sense of relief. I put this down to Here Comes a Chopper being the first book to appear after the Second World War, meaning that it was likely composed after the end of the war in Europe. And for a woman who never herself married, Mitchell again proved herself a keen observer of the sometimes fractious interplay between men and women, and the back and forth between Dorothy and Roger over the course of the adventure is pitch-perfect, especially the change in tone when Roger becomes infatuated with the redheaded femme fatale, Claudia Denbies. This is another story which begins around the moveable feast of Easter, as The Rising of the Moon did; Mitchell was almost always one to observe the calendar and build her stories around a firm sense of time and place, of the seasons and the traditional feast days of the old saints and the calendar of rural life.
Strangely, and almost in passing, there is an unusual error early in the text which I haven’t yet been able to fully reconcile. It is an almost passing reference to the menace of a stand of hazel brambles, referencing the poem “The Fairies” by William Allingham (a minor 19th century poet). However, unaccountably, both the Vintage UK edition of 2014 and the French Librarie 10/16 translation of 2003 give the poet’s name as “George” Allingham. It’s entirely a minor question, but I now find that I have a minor imperative to put my hands on a copy of the first edition to see if that is where the problem originates. If so, why? I haven’t yet located a biography of Allingham, but I’ve not been able to find any reference to him being known as “George” (including in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, in which there is an entry on him), and this is the sort of minor fiddling detail that always bugs me. Was it Mitchell’s mistake, her editor’s error, a slip up somewhere else, or am I just missing something obvious? (I hate the feeling that I’m missing something that everyone else knows). Is it in the first edition? Fortunately, I am *just* sane enough not have have yet purchased a $200 copy of the first edition (because if I’m going to buy one, it’s going to have a decent jacket) merely to answer one tiny question. Probably. If and when I find out, I’ll update accordingly.
In the meantime, I heartily enjoin anyone looking for a good, solid, mid-1940s Mrs. Bradley novel to pick up Here Comes a Chopper. Fortunately, Vintage UK has recently reprinted it, and Francophones can once again take advantage of the excellent Éditions 10/18 version (under the title L’homme sans tête, once again ably translated by Katia Holmes). British readers will also be able to indulge in the Vintage UK eBook edition, and an American eBook is available through Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint. Regardless of how they experience it, readers will find both Miss Mitchell and Mrs. Bradley in good form.
Reviewed September, 2017.