Erin Cordell reports that she “tended to get a little lost” during the presentations of past and present – one of the challenges of this book even for seasoned GM readers – but that “some of the passages were really intriguing.” Lynn MacGrath observes, “The main point about these chapters is the tension (no wonder I read so quickly last time!) especially in the scene where Harben is attacked while swimming. There are also pathos, humour and insight; pretty impressive for a thorough-going adventure story.”
THE WAR AND THE WRITER
Researcher and scholar Chris B. has once more provided fascinating historical and geographical details for the group, and I find myself wanting to share all of his information because the context is so enjoyable. A sincere thank you for offering these insights, Chris. First up, some acronym education.
Chris explains that in Sunset over Soho, “Stephen seems to be working on what he calls ARP firefloats – i.e. floating fire-engines, a long-standing resource of the London Fire Brigade on the Thames, and much needed in the Blitz because the London Docks were a prime target of the Luftwaffe. In this case, though, he would have joined the Auxiliary Fire Service rather than the ARP.”
Chris also gave careful consideration to Lynn Walker’s question in the previous post. She wondered whether Gladys Mitchell might have visited London during the Blitz and experienced an air raid, as the author wrote so vividly and knowledgeably about this moment in time. Here is his reply.
“We don’t have her direct testimony, and there’s a career-break gap in her CV for 1939 to 1941, attributed to unidentified ill-health. It’s conceivable that she left for some rural location (an Oxfordshire pig-farm, maybe?) along with other evacuees; but if we assume she was still living in Brentford, where she would resume teaching in 1941, she would, without needing to visit central London, have experienced multiple air raids, although not as heavy as those suffered by the East End.”
Chris adds persuasively that “the carefully detailed description of the Rest Centre in the opening chapters also suggests strongly that she did personally visit the real Baptist Church shelter in St Giles with notebook in hand, although presumably by daylight when it was safer to do so. This further suggests that she was not evacuated to a pig-farm during the Blitz, nor visiting the Canary Islands, but was still somewhere closer to central London, most likely at Brentford.”
THE NUNS AND THE ORPHANS
Tracy found this “a lovely sequence where David Harben discusses religion, faith and belief with the younger of the nuns.” It is indeed a nicely drawn scene, and serves to humanize both Harben and Sister Mary Dominic as they form a bond through conversation and theological debate.
Erin wrote that “Harben's discussion of God with the nun intrigued me… Murder mysteries don't often go into belief of a deity.” She asks whether “the author had religious conflicts or was she a devoted believer sneaking in a plug for religion?”
It is my view that Gladys Mitchell was a student of life, interested in exploring all the perspectives and paradoxes that humanity offered. Her books show that she is comfortable presenting characters with convincingly firm Christian religious beliefs – her beloved sister took the orders to become a Dominican nun – but she is also fascinated by pagan and occult rituals. In Soho as with so many other GM titles, there is also an ancient respect of Nature and the elements that provide a religion for the community. 1935’s The Devil at Saxon Wall is a shining example of this, and her Stephen Hockaby stories like Marsh Hay (1933) and Gabriel’s Hold (1935) also find characters interacting with a fickle Nature that can alternately bless and destroy with its power.
As for the orphans, they are not delineated as characters through the same attention the author gives the nuns who oversee them. However, their presence provides energy and a reminder that the war and displacement affects youth and adults alike. Lynn M. comments that “as usual, Mitchell writes wonderful children. The exchange between Harben and the orphans is so convincing; as in real life, the children see more than adults give them credit for!” Young people – and their attendant energy and wisdom – become colorful confidants to the elderly detective in several Mrs Bradley stories.
THE RIVER AND THE SIREN
From Tracy: “Some of the descriptions in these chapters are just wonderful. The river and its surroundings were brought alive for me in this book.” She singled out a few passages that were especially effective, including this one from Chapter Eleven:
The wide, shallow steps from the garden went down to the bed of the river. Almost beside them, less than three yards to the left, a cut had been made in the bank and a very small boathouse built. Just as he came to this boathouse the sun came bright, and the mist began to roll off the face of the garden and, hanging about the trees for a minute or two, was swept away on a breeze.
To orient us better, Chris has useful information about the specific geography. He writes that “the small riverside town of Helsey Marsh, where David meets the nuns and then Mrs Bradley in Chapter 8, is fictional. It appears to be somewhere not far from Windsor. The location of the mystery Chiswick house becomes clearer in Chapter 12, as David finds himself ‘between the bridge and the first of the riverside houses’: he is on Strand-on-the-Green, the riverside road just to the east of Kew Bridge, where the Chiswick almshouses, first mentioned in Chapter 4, are still to be found.”
David Harben’s elusive mermaid-like love interest remains unknowable in these chapters, and this aspect of the story is the one Joyka finds least satisfying. She explains that, for her, “this book has none of the depth of characterization that I like in other Mrs Bradley novels. Harben seems trite and unexceptional. Leda is unemotional and juvenile. I think Inspector Pirberry agrees with me.” She writes that these characters are uninteresting and fare poorly when compared to some Mrs B adventures where the players are drawn with more life. Joyka references the same year’s The Worsted Viper as a contrast: “In Viper, the menace of those characters jumped off the page.” With Soho, the story takes on a “surreal” quality, and she thinks that might also contribute to her lack of engagement here.
Final thoughts from the group: Tracy reports that “so far, I am enjoying the story and the writing immensely. Of the three Mrs Bradley books I have read, this is my favorite.” Erin enjoys Inspector Pirberry – she calls out his feeling like “a squirrel in a cage” while exploring the riverside house – and notes that by the end of this section “Mrs Bradley is more clever that he is… always.” Lynn M. adds, “It’s been such a pleasure re-reading this story (more carefully this time!).”
And one last fun fact from Chris: “While examining maggots in the mystery house in Chapter 10, Mrs Bradley suddenly mentions ‘The Yellow Slugs... You must have read it.’ She refers to a short story by [fellow crime fiction writer] H. C. Bailey, “The Yellow Slugs” (Windsor Magazine, March 1935; reprinted in Bailey’s collection Mr Fortune Objects, 1935).
Next week we discuss Chapters 13 to 18 of Sunset over Soho! Thank you to everyone who is contributing or reading along with us.