Come Away Death (1937) by Gladys Mitchell

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Camera

come-away-death

Decided to have another look at Gladys Mitchell’s work on the blog today and this week Mrs Bradley is travelling in and around Greece and throughout the book the world of the ancient Greeks is referenced a lot, especially its’ literature. Some of these references are more accessible than others – I’m still at a loss as to why Mitchell decided to preface all her chapters with quotes from the Aristophanes’ play The Frogs. However, her likening of the smell of sewage, awaiting Mrs Bradley when she arrives in Athens, to a ‘siren song,’ was quite amusing.

The title of this novel, Come Away Death (1937), could well be an allusion to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and in a way there is a thematic link of entangled and complicated relationships and the odd broken heart. The book opens with Mrs Bradley going to stay at Sir Rudri Hopkinson’s home and his wife Marie, immediately informs her of her concerns about her husband and his latest scheme to discover what the Eleusinian mysteries were really like by recreating the actual conditions and ceremonies. A form of early experimental archaeology if you will. Not only is she concerned by Rudri’s mental stability she is also worried about the inclusion of Image result for come away death gladys mitchellAlexander Currie, who is meant to be Rudri’s friend, yet they continually fight and argue, especially since Currie publically embarrassed Rudri in archaeologically circles. Also going along are Rudri’s children, Megan, Ivor and Gelert and Currie’s children Kenneth and Cathleen, as well as Kenneth’s friend Stewart. There are additional non-family and friend members going and Marie is especially worried about the photographer Armstrong, a very good looking but very immoral young man. I think my favourite introduction to a character is with Ronald Dick, another young man going on the trip and Mitchell says of him that ‘he’s such a temperamental boy – most boys with spectacles are!’ Who knew?

From the very beginning of the trip things do not go right and inter-group animosities soon surface and Cathleen is convinced that death is stalking one of the party. But who will it be, with revenge and greed filling the group at a rapid rate? And has Rudri really gone mad? There is also the issue of a prankster plaguing the group and when snakes are added into the mix things certainly do not bode well. It is a worrying moment when the sanest, most sensible person in the group is Mrs Bradley who has the unenviable task of managing the others. Violence of course eventually breaks out amongst the party and it is up to Mrs Bradley to unravel the mystery.

Overall Thoughts

As expected Mrs Bradley enters the story in an unconventional and loud way wearing a ‘mauve motor veil with yellow spots’ and her grin still has the power to terrify or unnerve those around her. Unlike many of the other trip members, Mrs Bradley is adept at coping with the difficult travelling conditions, having ‘the constitution of a lizard’ and she jokingly suggests she is ‘almost the incarnation of’ a snake. When the situation requires immediate action she able to act ‘decisively, like a suddenly swooping bird’ and when reticence is required Mrs Bradley is also up to the task, acing in the manner ‘of an old and cunning tortoise.’

Image result for come away death gladys mitchell

Rudri is another interesting character who seems stuck in the past almost and I liked how the text emphasises the incongruity of Rudri’s trip and his surroundings:

‘She could see him, dogged idealist and romancer, proceeding ploddingly the while along the petrol-haunted, dusty Sacred Way which now led, in the age of progress, the world no longer young, from one Greek slum to another.’

One thing that did amuse me was the quote on the cover of my copy from Edmund Crispin, who asserts that Mitchell has a pellucid writing style. To be fair to Mitchell this narrative is more clear and coherent than say The Twenty Third Man (1957), but all the same I’m not sure pellucid is a word I would use to describe Mitchell’s oeuvre.

Image result for come away death gladys mitchell

I think my main issue with the book was its length as the plot felt very stretched at points, which affected the pacing of the story and in the first half there is definitely a lack of focus. There is a general feeling of something sinister going on, but nothing definite for Mrs Bradley to follow up. There are dramatic moments but the density of the book at times reduces their impact. I think the book had a lot of good elements in it, but I don’t think Mitchell capitalises on them as much as she could have done and this meant for me that the ending, with Mrs Bradley’s usual unconventional justice, fell rather flat.

Rating: 3.25/5

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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8 Responses to Come Away Death (1937) by Gladys Mitchell

  1. I’ve tried to start this one a couple of times but never got very far. Not convinced that you’ve convinced me to persevere… One day, maybe

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah it’s not one I’d strongly recommend. Annoyingly it has a number of good elements, but unfortunately they are not used effectively and they tend to get lost in the story. Fans of the ancient Greeks may get more out of it.

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  2. JFW says:

    Oh dear, Gladys Mitchell seems to be faring quite poorly on your blog… Have you read ‘Death at the Opera’? That’s the only title by her I’ve read, and I thought it was ok. I have ‘St Peter’s Finger’ sitting on my metaphorical TBR, on TomCat’s recommendation. But, while I want to keep the best for the last, I fear the other titles aren’t worth reading at all…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I have read DATO and like you thought it was okay. Been a while since I have read it. My two favourite Mitchell novels, are quite controversial in that JJ and Puzzle Doctor don’t like them and they are Speedy Death and The Saltmarsh Murders.

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  3. Pingback: Book of the Month: September 2016 | crossexaminingcrime

  4. ludibundlad says:

    I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy this one. It’s one of my favourite Mitchell novels, and I own a signed first edition. I like the Greek setting, the atmosphere of temples and ruins, the sense of remoteness, the comic bickering of the archaeologists, and the use of the Oresteia and Homer. The scene at Mycenae is impressive, and the “manifestation” at Epidaurus sent shivers down my spine. I think it helps to have a grounding in Greek mythology; I was one of those odd children who knew his classics in kindergarten.

    The chapter heading quotations from Aristophanes are apposite; there are a couple which seem to continue the conversation at the end of the last chapter.

    MASSIVE SPOILERS ABOUT THE CLASSICAL THEMES
    SPOILER
    SPOILER
    SPOILER
    The title comes from Twelfth Night, and the original verse (‘I am slain by a fair cruel maid’) provides a clue to the murderer’s identity. The chapter heading quotations come from Aristophanes’s Frogs, and the plot involves the mystae, professional rivalry (between two archæologists rather than two poets), a journey through the Underworld, and a judgement scene. The murderess is compared to Iphigenia, sacrificed by her father; to Clytemnestra, who slew Agamemnon in his hubris; and to Artemis, the virgin huntress ‘who carriest the bow of the hunter’, and who punished Actaeon with death for his temerity in desiring her. Of course, Mitchell, an avid reader of The Golden Bough, would have been familiar with Frazer’s argument that Artemis was not a virgin goddess, but a goddess of fertility. The murder weapon, the bow of ibex horns, is both the bow of Artemis, and the bow Odysseus uses to kill the suitors for Penelope’s hand. The victim, Armstrong, is compared to Dionysus (who was also the judge in The Frogs), in his dissolute and unsavoury nature; however, whereas Dionysus caused Pentheus to be torn apart by the Bacchae, here the Bacchae turn upon and rend Dionysus. A young archæologist, in love with Megan, quotes Book XXII of The Iliad, which describes the death of Hector; ‘soon in the dust lay that head once so fair, for Zeus had given him over to his enemies, to suffer shameful treatment in his own native land’. Armstrong is half-Greek, and dies in Greece, and all that is left of him is his severed head, but his character cannot be compared to that of the Worthy Hector!
    SPOILERS END
    SPOILERS END
    SPOILERS END

    The trick to enjoying Mitchell is not to read her books expecting an orthodox fair play puzzle plot detective story with alibis, locked rooms and challenges to the reader. She’s a better novelist than she is a detective writer.

    It seems that you prefer Mitchell’s takes on traditional detective story tropes: the country house in “Speedy Death” and the village murder in “Saltmarsh”. Both are excellent, and “Saltmarsh” in particular was regarded as a classic. If so, you might enjoy “The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop” and “The Longer Bodies”. These are all traditional British detective stories. If you like those, you might like “Here Comes a Chopper”, written in the mid-’40s, which has an R. Austin Freeman plot, a nod to Ronald Knox and a country house setting.

    Otherwise, I’d recommend “The Devil at Saxon Wall” (pagan survivals in an English village, with a powerful atmosphere and one of her most ingenious plots); “Dead Men’s Morris” (ghosts and pigs in Oxfordshire at Christmas); “St Peter’s Finger” (quite Sayersian); “Brazen Tongue” (a small town in WWII, with beautiful misdirection); “Death and the Maiden” (naiads in Winchester); “Tom Brown’s Body” (a public school story with witchcraft); “The Echoing Strangers” (two identical epicene twins and their homicidal grandfather who cheats at cricket); and “Merlin’s Furlong” (witchcraft again). TomCat liked “Morris” and “Furlong”.

    I’d also recommend some of her 1940s books, with the proviso that they’re not detective stories. “Sunset Over Soho” is a fascinating, dream-like book, with unreliable narrators, corpses in coffins, lyrical eroticism and adventure on the high seas. “The Rising of the Moon”, possibly her best-known book, is told through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy, and involves burgeoning adolescence and a serial killer.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wow you certainly know your classical mythology! I did A level Ancient History so covered writers like Aristophanes but I was more interested in the social commentary of such plays rather than the mythological connections. Brazen Tongue and Here Comes the Chopper sound interesting to try, but I wasn’t very keen on Death and the Maiden, The Longer Bodies or The Rising of the Moon. I did enjoy The Butcher’s Shop Mystery though.

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  5. Pingback: Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt 2016: Wrap Up Post | crossexaminingcrime

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