“Air raids, injuries, heroism and lots of detail about London during the Blitz as only Gladys Mitchell can provide. And then, that short paragraph that shoots us off into one of the most confusing GM stories I have read.” She quotes the text that ends Chapter 3 as Mrs Bradley begins an account of riverside adventure that is alternately dreamlike and nightmarish:
“I’m going to tell you a story,” said Mrs Bradley. “Some parts of it you know, but only the least important. It concerns David Harben and these Spaniards, and, to a certain extent, the body.”
Sunset over Soho is known as an especially challenging book in the series, but for the patient reader it also has many pleasures and rewards. Lynn Walker observes that “this is certainly a different book. It seems that Mitchell is stretching her abilities as a writer, which is always interesting to see and so far, it works.” A city church has been converted into a Rest Centre for those injured or displaced due to air raid bombings, and Mrs Bradley and Detective-Inspector Pirberry speculate on the discovery of a dead man in a coffin found in the basement. Erin Cordell comments that “the problem of how the coffin appeared where it was discovered is a fun problem to solve; it is those types of out-of-place and confounding situations that I enjoy in a whodunit.”
Contributor Chris B., who has shared some wonderful historical and geographical research about previous titles, offers much excellent information to orient us to this novel’s time and place. He informs us that “the initial settings are in the more interesting parts of London’s West End, either side of ‘the inscrutable Charing Cross Road with its million secrets’, on which David Harben has a room. To the east of that road is St Giles; to the west of it, Soho.” Chris explains that “the Rest Centre, based on a real shelter for bomb-displaced residents at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church at the east end of Shaftesbury Avenue, is in St Giles, not in Soho. It lies on “Maidenhead Close” (later revealed to be the historical name of the real Dyott Street, St Giles). Most other street names are real. These include, in Soho itself, Gerrard Street, where Mrs Bradley is renting rooms in a house with a Jewish tailor and two sex-workers, and nearby Little Newport Street, where she and David are both nearly stabbed.”
Readers were impressed at the author’s authentic rendering of this urban demi-monde. Lynn MacGrath writes that, upon her first reading of Sunset over Soho, she "was struck by the fact that 'all human life is there'. In the first few chapters, we see the realities of life in wartime London and the mind-numbing bureaucracy which kept things going." Lynn Walker notes that “it would be fascinating to know from whom she got all the descriptive details of a shelter during the Blitz. Did she ever visit London during the war and experience an air-raid?” It is a tantalizing question, and I don’t believe I have seen any interview or anecdotal information to confirm such a stay. Tracy K., who runs the great blog Bitter Tea and Mystery, adds that “the descriptions of the air raids in Soho are the best I remember reading. It makes a difference to be reading a book set during the Blitz written at the time that the war was going on.”
Chris writes knowledgeably on this aspect: “The people sheltering at the Rest Centre are ‘of all races and classes... Jews, Greeks, Russians, French, Chinese, Negroes and English’. Local Austrian, Spanish, Swedish, Italian and Polish people are also mentioned in the first two chapters. This multi-ethnic mix is only partly attributable to recent refugees from the war. The distinctive character of Soho had since the mid-19th century been formed by its already very mixed immigrant population. The southern end of Soho around Gerrard Street more recently known as Chinatown (since the 1980s) had in the 1930s and 1940s – alongside a few Chinese and Indian restaurants – a greater variety of French, Italian and other European, including Jewish, inhabitants. It was a night-life district of pubs, cheap restaurants, night-clubs, gambling-dens and brothels.”
Indeed, from the presence of Mrs Bradley’s street-walker neighbors (unambiguously called such) to David Harben’s sexual attraction (carrying a kind of moth-to-the-flame destructive pull) to the mysterious Leda, the author here provides an unusually adult and unadorned view. It is one in keeping with an unsentimental description of a nation at war and at unglossed extremes. Tracy notes that “there is more sex in this book than in the two others I have read. It is not explicit, but nevertheless it is clear that David Harben and the girl have two sexual encounters and that he is emotionally involved.” One encounter is so striking in its forthrightness that I provide it below; while it is atypical for the author generally, it is entirely in keeping with the tactile sensuality and descriptions of willful nature found in this novel’s river scenes, full of swirling mists and flowing currents. From the end of Chapter Six:
Their bodies were cold from the river, and then, with frightening suddenness, surgingly warm, except for cold fingers clutching at shoulder and waist, and a cold mouth pressed on the living warmth of the flesh. Lean belly and rounded thigh, the pressure of deltoid and heel, strong shoulder and urgent hand, lost shape and meaning. Agony passed like a sword, effort broke out in sweat, and stars stood, shivered, and swam.
Harben recovered soonest. He pushed the wet hair from his eyes, got off the bunk, picked up his shirt, and said sadly:
"Well, that’s that. And now what the devil do we do?"
And Lynn MacGrath observes another impressive strength of the author, and one that I agree with regarding her entire Mrs Bradley series. Lynn writes, "One of the aspects of Gladys Mitchell's work that I especially enjoy is the way she gives us technical and mechanical information, but in such a way as to enhance the story and make us feel more at home there, without blinding us with science."
Indeed, David Harben’s story, about meeting a beautiful woman one shadowy night aboard his tub, and finding a dead man in a house along the river shore, begins in Chapter Four, which Mitchell designates as the start of Book Two – The River-God’s Song. One of the challenges for readers of Sunset over Soho is undoubtedly this story-within-a-story narrative device, made more confounding by the notion that we can’t really trust what we are learning, as novelist Harben may be lying to protect himself and others. Detective-Inspector Pirberry certainly takes this view, and as the book continues, we hope that Mrs Bradley will be able to separate the truths from the lies.
Chris provides this astute observation: “While the first three chapter-titles are functional, the next three are fabulous or mythological, indicating that the enigmatic ‘story’ here told by Mrs Bradley belongs to some realm of unreality distinct from the realism of the first three chapters.”
Chris also comes through with excellent historical commentary regarding both landscape and author biography. He writes: “Chiswick [pronounced ‘Chizzick’], is part of Brentford & Chiswick, at that time a proudly independent suburban municipality (the novel is dedicated to its current Mayor) just outside the then western borders of London, subsequently swallowed up into Greater London in 1965. It sits on the north bank of the River Thames, upriver from Westminster, and opposite Kew. Just west of Chiswick is Brentford, where Gladys Mitchell had lived since the age of eight, and where she still lived in 1942 and ‘43, working as a teacher at the local Senior School for Girls. She would soon make it the recognisable although unnamed setting of her novel The Rising of the Moon (1945). Chiswick is where the riverside house of Chapter 5 is located, and where David’s boat is at that point moored.”
Let us conclude with a few thoughts on Mitchell’s construction of her characters in this book. Personally, I find David Harben an interesting and a satisfyingly real and flawed potential protagonist. It helps that Mrs Bradley shows an affinity for – or at least an interest in – the young man in a tight spot, as the reader can then do the same. Lynn says that “characterization is always a strong point” with Gladys Mitchell, and that there is much of interest here. Erin singled out a description of the Rest Centre’s Supervising Officer as someone who ‘might die for a theory, allow himself to be martyred for an idea.’ She feels this is “a perfect commentary on the time the book was written. Britain was fighting for its life, Germany was fighting for the idea of domination and revenge.”
Lynn M. singles out the memorable "low comedy of the description of the furnace-man's monologue" in Chapter 2, and such vivid characterizations with just a few lines of description or idiom is another Mitchell strength. Here, Lynn says that "he doesn't speak but we know exactly how he sounds." The brief interview concludes this way:
There had been no coffin on the premises before Saturday, which was the last day on which he had seen the arches. He wanted to keep extra coke down there, not coffins, and but for the idiocy of the L.C.C. in blocking all possible coal-shoots from the street, he would have had another five ton put down there, ah, that he would, chance what! They could do with it, come the winter. As for coffins, he thought their place was underground.
Thank you to all the contributors, and to everyone who might be reading along with us! Next week, we will look at Chapters 7 through 12, as the novelist and the psychologist are pulled deeper into the story. If you wish to share your comments, please send them by Tuesday, April 13 to firstname.lastname@example.org .