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.
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.
It’s hard to explain to non-book types what it can feel like to encounter something genuinely rare, unusual, or special. I’m not talking about a pair of shoes that you have to look in two whole shops to find, or even a CD that you have to order online because nobody in the local strip mall stocks it. When I first held Grand Master in my hand, there was something of a sense of surprised awe, of this thing that previously I only knew from a website (Jason Half’s Gladys Mitchell site, as it happens), and of the accumulated time and distance that had brought the book and me together. It was a remarkable moment, made all the more poignant by knowing that, before long, I’d have to give the thing back.
For a few weeks, however, Grand Master was mine. I hope that I made the most of it.
As the last of the Stephen Hockaby historical novels written by British crime writer Gladys Mitchell, but the first and only one that I have read, I have little to compare 1939’s Grand Master to, outside of other historical novels in general, and the rest of Mitchell’s canon. Grand Master, however, is so different an animal that comparisons are not easy, and may not be particularly useful, even within the author’s own works. Consider, for example, the Mitchell-penned Mrs. Bradley novel of the same year, Printer’s Error, a book troublesome enough in its own right that I haven’t yet tried to review it. What I can say is that this novel is a sweeping tale of captivity, loss, and friendship, played out on the stage of some of the decisive events of 16th century Europe.
The story opens with young John de la Naye, a boy of twelve on a dangerous sea voyage of pilgrimage to the Holy Land, when the ship on which he and his mother are travelling is captured by pirates. The pirates are the Moslem (as the orthography of the day would have it) corsairs, based in north Africa, which plagued shipping and travel in the Mediterranean in the 1500s. The Galley of Umbria on which the de la Nayes are traveling is captured, and John’s mother killed by another European to spare her the indignities of enslavement by “the heathen;” the galley itself is taken into tow as a prize to North Africa, to Algiers. The women are destined to be servants or allocated to harems, the men and boys more often than not become galley slaves, leading miserable lives chained to oars and rowing under the tyranny of whip and drum. John de la Naye, therefore, is fortunate to escape his fate.
A number of de la Naye’s adventures might seem odd to modern readers. For that matter, the tale of the pirates, at the time recently evicted from lands that they had long held in Spain, sweeping across the Mediterranean and seizing ships, crews, and cargoes, is one which requires a little insight into the sweep of history. For the most part, Hockaby/Mitchell forgoes the framework of that history, telling the tale of de la Naye while assuming that her readership will be familiar with the events depicted. De la Naye himself is an oddly reserved character, even from his first childhood misadventures following the capture of the “Galley of Umbria.” His exploits continue at an almost unbelievable pace: he escapes captivity, only to be sold to the Ottoman Turks in Istanbul (which was, as the song tells us, previously known as Constantinople), from whom he then escapes again, and washes up (conveniently) on the Knights of St. John-controlled Greek island of Rhodes, shortly before the Second Siege of 1522 (there is a helpful Wikipedia article about this event, for just one window into the novel). There he becomes a Knight of the Order of St. John, and participates in the defence during the Siege. His travels take him on to Venice, Marseilles, home to England, and further abroad still. Along the way he will lose and find old friends, and make new ones, all while keeping (more or less) to his vows as a Knight of the Order. Eventually, he rises to the titular level of fame, although his struggles continue almost to the end of this 300-odd page sweep through history, slightly fictionalised.
De la Naye is portrayed as honourable and devoted, a courageous fighter and a good friend to those who show him kindness or earn his approval. He is less successful as a husband, which seems almost a tertiary concern to him, but perhaps this is a reflection of the times. In the end, I decided that it was the force of the story itself that carries readers forward, rather than the appeal of John de la Naye’s character. There is very much a sense of “what will happen to him next?” about Grand Master. The resulting story delivers, whether it be the villainy of Barbarossa, captivity and escapes, a remarkable (for the time) side-trip to the Yucatan, or sieges of fortresses held against terrible odds.
Mitchell acknowledges in the Author’s Note that the actual Grand Master of the Order of St. John (otherwise known as the Knights Hospitallers) at the time of the 1565 Siege of Malta was Frenchman Jean Parisot de la Valette, rather than the hero of Grand Master, the Englishman John Stephen-Michael de la Naye. Why the change, especially given that Mitchell also puts de la Naye in de la Vallette’s place at the Siege of Rhodes, some forty years earlier, yet says “this book is not in any sense his biography”? I can only guess that her motivation might have been to fictionalise history to such a degree as to excuse the liberties she took with her character, or possibly, in view of the looming onset of the Second World War, perhaps the conversion of a French historical figure to an Englishman was intended as patriotism? Without a thorough biography of Mitchell herself, we may never know. Personally, though, I suspect that the same trip to Greece and Istanbul which yielded many of the events of her 1938 Mrs. Bradley novel, Come Away, Death, must also have called in at Malta, where she cast her eye over the town of Valetta (named for the long-ago Grand Master) and thought “there’s a story here…”
Mitchell also went to at least one source that we know directly, because she cites it in the Author’s Note. For historical detail, she consulted the work of an English naval officer and historian, E. Hamilton Currey, who in 1910 had published the enthrallingly-titled Sea Wolves of the Mediterranean (sometimes, “Sea-Wolves” appears to have been hyphenated, but in my edition, the 1928 Philip Allan & Co. reprint, it is not). What I have read of this history so far is fascinating, not least for its depiction of the seascape of the 16th century Mediterranean. If the events of Grand Master are not enough for you, then Currey’s Sea Wolves, although doubtless dated, would like also be a rewarding expenditure of your time. That Mitchell leaned heavily on this work in writing Grand Master is, unsurprisingly, quite evident in reading the two books one closely after the other.
Grand Master was to be the last of Mitchell’s historical novels: according to interviews, she viewed the work of research as not being compensated by the rewards of publication, and when her publisher Michael Joseph rejected a proposed (but unwritten?) further novel dealing with the First Crusade, timed with the coming of the Second World War, it seems as though she never felt compelled to try historical writing again. That fact is a shame, because although the tone of Grand Master is at times odd, it is a compelling read, with a solid grasp of historical detail. The reader does not need to know the minutiae of the history to be swept away in a tale as engrossing as any I have recently read.
A Few More Points
Grand Master is not a particularly old book. It’s also not a particularly valuable book, intrinsically, except to collectors of Mitchell’s work and those devoted enough to want to read everything that she ever wrote. It is, however, a surprisingly rare and difficult-to-find book. Don’t take my word for it: try to find a copy on your favourite out-of-print book site. The last copy of which I was aware sold months ago, for quite a tidy sum. Indeed, in recent years, supply of the Hockaby books, like the supply of Malcolm Torrie titles and even Mitchell’s less common works under her own name, has transformed from a trickle to a positive drought. Whether this is a function of time or of greedy collectors (like yours truly) or both, I cannot say, except to remind readers that a lot of British books did not make it through the Second World War and instead ended up pulped as a part of the war effort, and that the print runs were probably smaller than one might expect to begin with. But I am pleased to report that this valuable book can be readily obtained from a library which will, evidently, lend it anywhere in the country. If I have one fear about this fact, it is that not everyone will be as scrupulous about the sanctity of public libraries as I am.
What was perhaps most interesting to me about the physical book itself was not even a part of the text. It was the story on the rear pastedown of the book. This is something that real books will always have over their pale electronic shadows: the material evidences of age and possession, and the fascinating, tantalising, often incomplete tales that these marks tell. For example: at some point, this copy of Grand Master had found it’s way to Chicago, and ended up in a shop called Nedwick’s Book Store. There are occasional references to Nedwick’s around the web, and I even located a site devoted to old bookseller labels which includes a Nedwick’s label. What is most interesting to me, however, are the glyphs above the label. I’ve reproduced a photo of them for you.
This is the sort of thing that both amuses me and makes me feel slightly ill. This book, which somehow ended up in a Western American university library, was marked down. If I’m reading the glyphs correctly, its list price worked out at $2.65 (converting from what looks to be an English price of 2 / 2, that is, two shillings, twopence). Then it was marked down to $1.50. And, finally, it was sold for 75 cents. Even assuming that these are 1950 cents (taken as a guess, although the book may have been sold anywhere between 1940 and 1960), according to the CPI inflation calculator, that’s still almost $8 in 2017’s money. Basically, this copy of Grand Master was sold off as a remainder: I’ve paid more for recent remainders at Barnes & Noble. And now, if you could find this identical book for $500, you’d consider yourself lucky (perhaps luckier if you found it for $50, but I’m trying to be realistic). I always find it interesting to observe the changes in value that occur through time, especially with regard to the values of ephemeral objects. It is the eternal hopefulness that drives sellers on eBay and elsewhere: the dream of finding something rare on the cheap and selling it for a big return. However, in this case, how the book made it from a remainder table in Chicago to a major American university library is the missing link in the story.
But more importantly, I wonder at the position occupied in the darker, more obscure corners of Gladys Mitchell’s canon. Will this book still exist in a hundred years? Will anyone have read it, apart from a few dedicated scholars, probing the dustier corners of old collections in out-of-fashion libraries, maybe even eventually scanning it and whacking it up on Project Gutenberg, or the like? I wonder.
The digital era has made many promises. I’m not the first to point out that any number of these have either not been realised, have been perverted, or have had terrible, unintended consequences. But it has made life easier for hardcore book collectors, in some ways. We now have many tools for searching out and obtaining hard-to-find books. Where those pockets of scarcity genuinely exist, we learn the difference between what seemed rare to us before the Internet, in the days of hunting through whatever bookshop was in driving distance of home, and what seems rare now. The two are certainly not always the same thing, but in my experience we still need both the ability to browse locally for unexpected treasures, and the ability to search the world for that very book which will be balm, at least for a moment, to our troubled hearts. One day, I am confident, the other Hockaby books too will come into my hands. At that point, I hope to provide a review for them as well, as another salvo against the darkness of an indifferent future.
Reviewed August and September, 2017.