Come Away, Death

A review of Come Away, Death by Gladys Mitchell

On the spectrum of crime writers from the so-called Golden Age Gladys Mitchell, by the time this, her eighth novel in her Mrs Bradley series, saw the light of day in 1937, had firmly established herself a spot on the outer reaches. She seemed determined to push the boundaries, challenge the reader and produce stories like no other.

Like a 1930s Pausanias Mitchell takes her reader by the hand on a tour of some of the wonders of ancient Greece, principally Eleusis, Mycenae, and Ephesus, to re-enact some of the rituals of the time. Her travelling companions are a motley crew, assembled by the slightly deranged Sir Rudri Hopkinson, who still feels sore after being humiliated academically by his rival, Alexander Currie. As well as the two academic rivals and their children, the party includes a photographer, Armstrong, the rather effete Ronald Dick, and, of course, Mrs Bradley. Other characters, including Ian who has secretly married Currie’s daughter, Cathleen, and a Greek driver flit in and out of the narrative.

The book’s principal strength is its ability to build up and sustain tension and atmosphere. The reader shares Cathleen’s sense that some tragedy is to befall the party. Jealousies and rivalries emerge, the two academics cannot help winding each other up, while Armstrong gets on the wrong side of the younger men with the attention he pays to the women and often wears the bruises to prove it.

At each of the principal sites the party visits, Hopkinson attempts to recreate a ritual appropriate to the god worshipped there, but his plans are bedevilled with strange occurrences. Mysterious figures flit in and out of sight, a figure dressed in white and the reincarnation of Artemis, and someone has switched the snakes that Hopkinson has brought for poisonous vipers. While these sinister events occur, the boys in the party, as boys will, see the ancient ruins as a form of playground to be explored, to play minor pranks and for ever fall and scrape their knees. Mrs Bradley acts as an unofficial tour manager, trying to hold the party together.

Inevitably, tragedy strikes the party, when Mrs Bradley discovers the severed head of Armstrong in the box which contained the snakes. How did he die? Where is the rest of the body, and who killed him? Considering the length of the book, the answers to these questions are wrapped up quickly by Mrs Bradley, using a mix of what we would now call psychological profiling and good old-fashioned deductive powers.

Once again, Mrs Bradley’s wonky moral compass is on display. Like a Fury she pursues the truth but is content to become an accessory after the fact, to allow the culprit to get away with it – Armstrong was an odious character, after all. The authorities are conspicuous by their absence in the narrative.

Appropriately enough the way the murder was committed had Homeric overtones, but took place off stage, leaving the trip in some senses as little more than an enormous red herring.   

It is more than that, of course, because the trip allows Mitchell the luxury of her developing her characters and to explore the underlying currents of tension between her protagonists. There is also something of a Greek tragedy in the book’s structure, where the writer is interested in the interplay of characters and emotions that build up to and react to a major event rather than the event itself. There is much more to Mitchell’s books than a simple whodunit.

Mitchell is not afraid to wear her knowledge of the Greeks, their literature, and their mythology on her sleeve. The book is peppered with references to the likes of Aristophanes, quotations from his Frogs preface each chapter, and Homer and to talk about the excavations of Schliemann. Knowledge of the classics, rightly or wrongly, formed part of the educational curriculum and as with the scriptures and the works of Shakespeare, writers like Mitchell felt at ease in making casual references to these in the certain knowledge that some of her readership would identify them. Sadly, this is not the case today, making the book an even denser and challenging read for the modern reader.

I enjoyed the book, but unless you are a Mitchell fan, this is not the one to start with.

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