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Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Devil at Saxon Wall by Gladys Mitchell

Today’s review concerns a spooooooky Hallowe’en read!

Well, not really. In fact, I’m trying, weakly, to make the latest book I read seem relevant to the present holiday. I had been planning to finish this about a month ago, and by now to b
e on something completely different, and relevant to the time of year, but life got in the way, so I’m doing my best with the fact that this book has ‘Devil’ in the title and the bonus that, because it is set in an interwar village, there is talk among the characters of witchcraft and curses. Of course, nearly all golden agey crime novels set in English villages feature talk of witchcraft and curses, but — yeah, Hallowe’en. And this one is particularly interested in the supernatural, after a fashion.

If you know me relatively well, you probably know that I’m a huge evangelist for Gladys Mitchell’s work. An ex, when they weren’t an ex, introduced me to her. I read The Longer Bodies at 19 and absolutely loved it, then as a PhD researcher moved onto Speedy Death, and didn’t look back. So it might surprise you to know that of her 86 novels, I’ve only read about a dozen. These include some of her recognised best — The Rising of the Moon  — and some of her recognised worst —  Watson’s Choice — and, honestly, I’ve loved everything I’ve tried.

Relatively recently (just after I started reading The Devil at Saxon Wall [1935]), the awesome Noah Stewart decided to stop reading Gladys Mitchell. As he explains in his blog post, he just couldn’t get on with her. Addressing Mitchell’s fans, Noah writes:
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s clear that you like her writing more than I do, and I respect that; I don’t think you have poor taste, it’s pretty clear that I do. There’s something about Gladys Mitchell, or me, and the two of us are immiscible. I have decided to do you all the favour of not beating the topic to death in a vain attempt to keep my promise — it was mostly made to justify my acquisition of so many e-books at one fell swoop.
Of course, I don’t think he has poor taste — rather, any taste for Mitchell is definitely an acquired one. I can totally see how she can be annoying: the convoluted plots, the sameness of the set-ups, the sometimes alarming right-wing attitudes and judgmental approaches to minorities (it should surprise no one that Mitchell was a mostly-repressed lesbian and not particularly popular among her fellow crime writers). Unusually with divisive novelists, I don’t find that the things that appeal to me in the books are the same things that other people hate — for instance, I love the pomposity of Dorothy L. Sayers! But, no, I don’t like Mitchell because of these things; I like her work in spite of them.

What does appeal so much about the books, then? Sex is definitely a big element. The absolute no-nonsense approaches to subjects that lesser writers evaded, like pre-marital sex, adultery, and homosexuality, and to things we’re still prudish about like cross-generational sex, venerial disease, and incest. I also like Mitchell’s habit of dabbling into the occult, and of doing it all from the perspective of her gloriously eccentric, hand-knit wearing, raucously cackling, thrice-widowed psychoanalyst detective, Adela Beatrice Lestrange Bradley. Mitchell wrote roughly parallel with Agatha Christie, starting in 1929 and writing until her death in 1983. At a time when psychoanalysis was increasingly popular, obviously vital, and largely defensively ridiculed (kind of how it’s becoming again today, as we stumble blindly towards major international conflict, right?) she put her sleuth in dialogue with old superstitions and the most irrational aspects of community behaviour. Also, Mitchell seems pretty unkindly disposed towards children, something I’m always on board with.

That’s my pre-amble; let’s move on to the book. The Devil at Saxon Wall is often picked out as one of Mitchell’s best, although rarely as the best. I simply decided it was high time I actually read it. I started it over a month ago and I’m a slow reader, but not usually quite this slow. It took me a long time to read because I took ages off from reading of all kinds, due to illness. That was horrid. Once I was better enough, I jumped right back in.

The story sprang from a lecture on witchcraft, given by Mitchell’s BFF, Helen Mitchell. It’s a sprawling masterpiece of whodunitry, with intersecting mysteries and a great deal of grotesque human interest. The action begins when Hannibal Jones, a hack novelist, is advised by Mrs Bradley to treat his writer’s block with a visit to the village of Saxon Wall. Upon arrival, Jones is thrust into a world of petty gossip and perennial superstition, as he grows close to an absolutely mad vicar, whom the locals believe is Satan. Their reasoning is this: there has been no rain in the village for some time, and the vicar has failed to pray for rain. Therefore, the vicar is, at the very least, in league with the Devil.

But there is a lot more gossip to contend with, not least of which is the matter of a dead child’s paternity. However, gossip normally means several things at once. One of the greatest puzzles in the book lies in trying to translate what the villagers are actually talking about. At the very end of the novel, Mitchell reveals that this has been a deliberate authorial ploy: ‘the inhabitants of Saxon Wall’, she writes, ‘were incapable of making straight-forward statements and, in [Mrs Bradley’s] unprejudiced opinion, even their lies were elliptical.’ This, Bradley opines, goes back to the Norman Conquest — and Mitchell demonstrates, then explains, that reasoning at some length.

Mrs Bradley herself arrives once a murder has taken place, when the prime suspect is given an alibi by Hannibal Jones himself. And she (Bradley) is in good form. Variously described as an ‘alligator’, a ‘serpent’, and a ‘yellow-clawed beast’, she spends the bulk of the novel disconcerting locals with her worldly cackles, her garish cardigan in seven clashing shades of purple, and her blasé avowal of a criminal past, until they start — but only start — to speak frankly.

The characters themselves are each described in animal terms at one point or another — more often than not as ‘bestial’ — and there is a very entertaining physical fight at one point between the ‘beastly’ insane vicar and the talon-clawed sleuth. For a psychoanalyst (or psychiatrist or psychologist — with Mitchell, the three words are interchangeable), Bradley is surprisingly open-minded, and easily takes on board local superstitions about devils, antichrists, and the unorthodox application of scripture at the same time as she takes for granted that respectable women can not only have children out of wedlock but also swap their babies for no apparent reason and, if they felt so inclined, kill them.

When various masquerades have been uncovered, and the complicated truth starts unravelling, Bradley takes the law into her own hands, in a tradition that started with Speedy Death (1929), and makes sure that the killer faces a higher judge rather than an earthly one. To do this, she draws brilliantly on the mob mentality of a superstitious community. Or, as it’s delicately called by her, a ‘very conservative’ one.

This is what makes Jones an important narrator — a character with safe distance from kookiness who fancies himself creative and imaginative, and who is used to professional hyperbole, who is nonetheless able to wryly observe a ‘village [that] is lousy with superstition of every kind this side [of] actual idolatry’. Bradley, after all, is too eccentric and open to fulfil that necessary role for a reader thrust into this world. Often, Bradley berates Jones for his lack of creativity: ‘You used to have imagination’, she says, nearing the solution to the case while Jones remains in the dark. ‘Now, I suppose, though writing those dreadful novels of yours, you’ve become earth-bound, a mere elemental, a curse to yourself and a menace to contemporary fiction.’

In the end, Jones vows to give up writing ‘chloroformed best-selling, copper-bottomed, gilt-edged fiction’ and instead to write something of substance inspired by Mrs Bradley herself. The adjectives tell us exactly how seriously Mitchell took her work and her gift for camp introspection.

What I didn’t like so much was the slightly racist characterisation of a Japanese servant. And I also didn’t get a strange aside that Jones has with the local doctor about eugenics. Perhaps someone can help me out with it?
‘What’s your opinion on eugenics and so on? Interesting subject in its way. Used it in a novel once, but not particularly satisfactorily, I thought. Not enough sentimentality about it for my kind of stuff.’ 
The doctor raised his glass […] Then he wagged his head, and misquoted solemnly: 
‘For malt does more than Malthus can
To justify God’s ways to man.’

The plot is so very complicated that Mitchell takes mercy on the reader and appends to this novel explanatory notes in the form of psychological profiles, background information, and a timeline of events. This is a device that Mitchell used sparingly and therefore very well in just a handful of novels — and it’s certainly a relief in The Devil at Saxon Wall.

Perhaps this wasn’t the best book to recoup with, but I thoroughly enjoyed getting immersed in a ridiculous but alarmingly believable world. My only regret is never getting Noah Stewart’s thoughts on this one.


  1. Well, since you are so very complimentary and kind, I'll see what I can do. Certainly I have an untouched copy lying around. I can tell you that Mitchell's distasteful personal views on eugenics concatenate through her earlier works, at least (The Worsted Viper contains the death of a mentally handicapped young woman who is portrayed as being horrifically unattractive; Mitchell seems to think that her brutal murder is a blessed relief for her caretakers. She also sounds off in another volume against the mixing of races). Quite, quite ugly stuff. Yes, it was of its times, but I don't have to like it and I cannot enjoy it.

  2. It's always good to find a fellow Mitchell evangelist, and hope you continue to enjoy the Great Gladys! I'm worried, though, that you're misinterpreting her work; I'd like to clarify some points, to help you get more out of her work.

    • Mitchell was popular with her fellow crime writers. Dorothy L. Sayers, for one, liked Mitchell's energy and good humor. She, John Dickson Carr, and Anthony Gilbert decided after WWII to make Mitchell Treasurer of the Detection Club. Sayers wrote: "It seemed to us that you would be the most suitable, trustworthy and well-situated to undertake the job." She'd also, I believe, been Club Librarian and secretary back in the '30s. Edmund Crispin (whom she sponsored) and H.R.F. Keating also wrote very affectionately of her.

    • Mitchell lived for many years with another woman, Winifred Blazey, and her poetry is, Tony Medawar believes, quite Sapphic.

    • Mitchell liked children a lot. She was a professional schoolteacher, so her children are unsentimentalized. They are, though, often braver, more sensible, and smarter than the adults. Mitchell has child narrators or protagonists in three of her novels (THE RISING OF THE MOON, 1945; LATE, LATE IN THE EVENING, 1976; THE GREENSTONE GRIFFINS, 1983), tells scenes or chapters in many of her books from a child's point of view, and wrote eight children's novels.

    • Mitchell was not right-wing. She voted Conservative towards the end of her life, but her worldview was liberal and progressive. As early as the 1930s, she challenged received ideas about Christian morality; supported birth control; condoned incest (in principle), pre- and extra-marital sex, and pornography; and condemned colour prejudice and capital punishment. The menaces in Mitchell’s novels are monomania, intolerance, repression, and closed-mindedness – which stop people from thinking clearly. Murder, tellingly, is a temporary insanity; most murderers are mad. Mrs. Bradley is open-minded, skeptical, questions social conventions and assumptions, and can see different points of view. (One contemporary critic, incidentally, described her as “the sort of woman who discusses birth control and Fascism at Left-wing cocktail parties”.)

    (More to follow)

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