A Century of Women, Gladys Mitchell

The Devil at Saxon Wall by Gladys Mitchell

Title: The Devil at Saxon Wall
Author: Gladys Mitchell
First published in 1935

Plot Summary from Goodreads: The quaint, cozy village of Saxon Wall is hiding a dark, sinister reality. When fiction author Hannibal Jones retires to Saxon Wall in hopes of reinvigorating his writing career, he instead finds himself in the midst of an increasingly puzzling and dangerous situation. Eccentric villagers and stories of curses, demons, and blood sacrifices abound. A devastating drought and imposing vicar escalate the pervasive fear until Hannibal Jones feels compelled to call in his good friend and detective, Mrs. Beatrice Lestrange Bradley. An alarming tale of a missing baby and suspicious deaths comes to light. And soon Bradley and Jones are at the center of a mystery wrought with conspiracy, murder…and witchcraft.

This classic caper promises to entertain, frighten, and intrigue as you revel in the antics of the gloriously unorthodox sleuth Mrs. Bradley.

This was my second Mrs. Bradley mystery, after The Saltmarsh Mystery, and I think that I can say at this point that Mrs. Bradley is quite unlike any of the other golden age mystery series that I’ve read so far. The book begins with a long preliminary tale about the ill-fated Constance who marries the enigmatic, possibly psychotic, Hanley Middleton. The first section of the book is identified as “First Manifestation: Domestic Interior,” which describes the abusive marriage of Constance and Hanley, and the ultimate death of Constance in child birth after she returns to her home in Saxon Wall, having previously fled back to her parents. Hanley follows Constance in death a short time later.

The second section of the book is titled “Second Manifestation: Conversation Piece“. I have no idea why it’s called this, actually, because there is precious little intelligent conversation in this book, and a whole lot of garbled confusion. At the beginning of the section, we are introduced to the main character of the book, one Hannibal Jones, described thus:

Hannibal Jones had earned a dishonest livelihood for seventeen years by writing sentimental novels. It was the less excusable in Jones to get his living this way in that he knew—none better, since he had lectured in Abnormal Psychology for a year or two in an American university before taking up his rather more nefarious career as author—that such novels as he wrote tended to encourage morbid daydreaming on the part of their readers, and that cooks and dressmakers, mothers of families, spinsters in all walks of life—even his own female relatives—were developing, because of him and his works, a Cinderella-complex of the most devitalising, time-consuming type.

Hannibal, who is quite rich as a result of his success as a writer, has some sort of a nervous breakdown when he accepts a large publishers advance for a book he doesn’t really want to write. He consults Mrs. Bradley, and she gives him advice to “get out your third-best car and travel until you find a sufficiently interesting and secluded village. Make yourself part of it. Study the people, but resolve never to write about them in a novel. Love them. Quarrel with them. Begin a lawsuit. Play village cricket.”

Somehow, he has the misfortune to end up in Saxon Wall, which must be the most terrible place in all of England, full of villagers who are downright creepy, baby-switchers, a psychotic vicar, and a drought which means that they are all, apparently, going to die of dehydration. Jones realizes that he is in the middle of some kind of devilish psychodrama and invites Mrs. Bradley in to help him solve the crimes, of which there are many.

The plot of this book made almost no sense. It was so convoluted that I couldn’t follow the thread at all, much less unravel it. Saxon Wall is a singularly horrible place, and the denizens of Saxon Wall are singularly horrible people. There wasn’t a single non-horrible person living there. Jones himself was confounding – why he didn’t just get in his car and drive the hell out of that place I cannot begin to imagine. Mitchell brings in witchcraft, folklore, and beer to add to the altogether strange tale. Mrs. Bradley shows up at about the 505 mark to untangle the skeins of the mystery, but even at the end I was left somewhat puzzled by everyone’s behavior.

“The temperament,” repeated Mrs. Bradley. “Yes, child. As good psychologists, we ought not to lose sight of that important item. The temperament for murder—an inexhaustibly interesting subject. I have it, you have it, the vicar has it. Mrs. Tebbutt has it, Doctor Mortmain has it. To how many other people in Saxon Wall would you say it has been vouchsafed?”

Everyone, dear reader. Everyone.

The third section contains some brief End Notes, which try to explain the book. They clear up a few things. But only a few things.

One of the most curious and interesting features of the general mentality, if such a term is permissible, of the inhabitants of Saxon Wall, was a noticeable inability to distinguish between essential good and essential evil.

I can’t say that I really enjoyed this book, but it did keep me interested, even if it was totally bananas.

Agatha Christie

Towards Zero by Agatha Christie

Title: Towards Zero
Author: Agatha Christie
First published in 1944

Plot summary from Goodreads: What is the connection among a failed suicide attempt, a wrongful accusation of theft against a schoolgirl, and the romantic life of a famous tennis player?

To the casual observer, apparently nothing. But when a house party gathers at Gull’s Point, the seaside home of an elderly widow, earlier events come to a dramatic head. As Superintendent Battle discovers, it is all part of a carefully laid plan — for murder.

This is the fifth, and last, of the Superintendent Battle interconnected mysteries. Superintendent Battle wasn’t one of Christie’s favorite creations, apparently, since she only wrote 5 books with him, but to my mind, they are five of the most enjoyable! He does exist within the same universe as Hercule Poirot, as he appears with Poirot, Colonel Race and Ariadne Oliver in Cards on the Table, although none of them appear in this book. Superintendent Battle does, however, make reference to Hercule Poirot while he investigating the murder of Lady Tressilian, noting Poirot’s attention to detail and its usefulness in crime solving.

The obsessive need for revenge takes center stage in this book. Agatha Christie has previously plumbed the depths of the obsessive personality, in books like Death on the Nile and And Then There Were None, and she will return to the theme in her psychological thriller Endless Night. The more I read – and reread – Agatha Christie, the more convinced I am that she had a way of cutting through societal niceties to see the blood and bone beneath, and frequently the true sight was terrifying. Her character sketches are quite compact, and while the negative or positive traits can be exaggerated, they are also remarkably perceptive given their brevity. This book demonstrates the devious and malicious undercurrents that can flow between two people – a victim and a perpetrator – while society sees something entirely different. And, until the very end, as is so often the case, Christie hides the truth in plain sight.

There are several supporting characters in this book that I particularly like, including Mary Aldin. About Mary Aldin, Christie said:

She has really a first-class brain—a man’s brain. She has read widely and deeply and there is nothing she cannot discuss. And she is as clever domestically as she is intellectually. She runs the house perfectly and keeps the servants happy—she eliminates all quarrels and jealousies—I don’t know how she does it—just tact, I suppose.”

If there is one thing that this book needed, it was more Mary Aldin!

One significant weakness to this book, I think, was Christie’s failure to develop the character of Angus McWhirter, using him as a prop to jump in and save the day, and the damsel, at the end. Christie had a thing for literal (not figurative) love at first sight, in which her male characters are constantly plunged into deep passionate love with a pretty face at first glance. While I am perfectly willing to buy lust at first sight, or infatuation at first sight, the shallow manner in which her characters profess love at first sight annoys me, and demeans the emotion. I also didn’t care particularly for the ending, although the promise of a legitimate happy ending for Mary was pleasant.

If you’re a fan of Dame Agatha, and you’ve somehow missed this one, I recommend it. If you are coming to Christie as a new reader, there are others that I would recommend before Towards Zero, although it is an enjoyable read and shows many of her skills to advantage.

A note on the television adaptation: the Miss Marple series grabbed this one for an adaptation, along with several other of the non-Marple independent mysteries, a fact which I personally consider a travesty. It was poorly done, so don’t bother with it. I really wish that someone would do a solid adaptation of the Christie mysteries that don’t involve Marple and/or Poirot. There are some really good books, and trying to shoehorn them into the Marple series doesn’t do them justice!