Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Devil At Saxon Wall - Gladys Mitchell

The Devil at Saxon Wall (1935) by Gladys Mitchell draws on the tradition of the Victorian inheritance mystery, but with added folklore and witchcraft thrown in. Three babies were born in the remote village of Saxon Wall, one to the family of the local manor, another to a woman reputed to be a witch, and another to a woman regarded as a simpleton. Only two of the children survived: but which two?

Hannibal Jones, a writer of sentimental novels, comes to the village to convalesce from nervous trouble and becomes unwillingly involved in its affairs, which include stories of changelings and impersonations and missing heirs. The pub, the Long Thin Man, is named after a local spirit connected with a tumulus on the downs above. There are spells, potions, the evil eye, and propitiation rites to bring much-needed rain.

A full cast of characters, as well as the witch and the supposed simpleton, includes a couple of Ivy Compton-Burnett-esque sister spinsters with brisk, brittle dialogue (we could have done with even more of them), a volatile vicar with a Japanese valet, and of course Mitchell’s reptilian psychiatrist-detective, Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange. These vivid characters and the deft twists in the plot are the novel’s main strengths.

Gladys Mitchell was the author of over sixty crime novels, and they are uneven in quality, as she herself admitted. At her best her books are vigorous, eventful, sly, full of rich colour and eccentric characters. But even Mitchell experts seem divided about this book. At The Stone House, the excellent website devoted to her, five commentators list the best and worst of her books. One puts it at thirteenth best on his list, another thinks it is her second greatest, but two others put it way down at no 55 and no 50, and one does not include it in his top 30.

I can see the difficulty. The author does rather layer on the rustic superstitions with a trowel. And despite its clever twists, the plot is a bit over-protracted and there is too much contrived mystification.  At the end of the book she provides an explanatory appendix about the role of each character. I could not help feeling such information ought to have been integrated adroitly into the plot.

The book is dedicated to Helen Simpson, the author of Cups, Wands and Swords, a Tarot novel, and other fiction with occult elements: the two were great friends and shared a serious interest in folklore and pagan survivals. Gladys Mitchell was clearly enjoying herself exploring these, and this gusto certainly comes across. Though it is a crime novel and must therefore follow a mostly rationalised route, the atavistic beliefs of the villagers are left intact and the book will certainly appeal to those who enjoy ‘folk horror’. 

(Mark Valentine)

Image from The Stone House.


 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Mark. I must look at those lists of Mitchell's best books. I've got three or four of her mysteries,and once started "Watson's Choice" (which didn't work for me0, but have long meant to look more closely at her work. This one sounds appealing, but I hope it isn't as elusive as Simpson's Cup, Wands and SWords.

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