Tracy K. from her site Bitter Tea and Mystery encapsulates the plot for these chapters. “Mrs Bradley continues to discuss the events related to David Harben's connection to the dead body found at the Rest Centre in Maidenhead Close with Detective-Inspector Pirberry. Now and then he interjects his reactions to the details of the story, especially questioning whether Harben's story is truthful or not. He suspects that Harben either killed the man or is protecting Leda.”
Joyka adds this context: “Mrs. Bradley, unwilling to call the story told by Harben the total truth, is also unwilling to say it is a totally false tale. Her explanation is interesting: David is telling what happened to him but is using the novelist’s tool of filling in the blanks and providing an ending where there may be none in actual life. Inspector Pirberry is skeptical but he respects Mrs B. to the point of allowing her to detect in her own fashion.” And Lynn MacGrath offers this compliment of the author’s singular style: “Gladys Mitchell packs so much into her pages. She is concise and yet still manages to set the scene and move that action along.”
Joyka says that “the characters are starting to flesh out a bit” in part because Mitchell is finally allowing a glimpse of how the components fit together. She notes that in this section “the Spaniards have been labelled as relatives of Leda, who have lived in the house on the river during breaks from their seafaring. Why they are after David and possibly Mrs B is still murky.” Tracy enjoys the adventure aspect of this tale. “Harben's story of being cast adrift on the sea, ending up who knows where, acquiring a boat to get back, and arriving in England, is somewhat fantastical but fun to read about.” And Lynn M. comments that “the switching from past to present kept my attention focused and added to the atmosphere, especially the dream sequences.”
Still, characterization and narrative structure can prove problematic in this novel for its readers; this was the case for myself and Chris B. this week. Chris comments that he “agrees with Joyka [from last week’s discussion] that Gladys Mitchell’s interest in human character seems to have gone missing: David is a cipher Hero figure, Leda is only a mythological cartoon, and the nearest we get to a human portrait is Plug Williams the shifty Welsh boxing coach.” As for the layered narrative approach, Tracy offers this reaction: “This is a very interesting way of telling a story but I also find it confusing. It is like reading a story (Harben's) within a story (Mrs Bradley's) within a story (Pirberry's) and not knowing if anyone knows the real story.
With Sunset over Soho, Chris perceptively identifies what he terms “the author’s fatal flaw in construction: that of founding the story upon an ‘unreliable’ narrative provided by David while failing to put that narrative into his own voice, which means that its psychological and dramatic potential is entirely thrown away. Instead, his story is relayed at second-hand, and therefore without conviction, by the character who by necessary convention should be trustworthy and credible as to fact.”
Chris continues, “The result is that the sleuth is compromised by glaring sins of omission while the hero becomes a puppet who simply goes through chase-and-escape routines quite perfunctorily. The attempted thriller material is also disappointingly stale and juvenile, as in other novels where Gladys Mitchell resorts to jewel-smuggling gangs or buried treasure. Getting kidnapped by pirates (or here, gunrunners) whose secret then gets betrayed by a parrot is corny comic-strip stuff.”
Which leads us conveniently to…
Chris helps us again with the references, informing us that “‘No, not Cripplegate’ refers to a possible confusion between two central London churches called St Giles, the first, St Giles Cripplegate, being a medieval church in the City (i. e., East End), in what is now the Barbican district; the other, officially St Giles-in-the-Fields, the 18th-century church that gives its name to the West-End parish of St Giles near Soho. Mrs Bradley deduces that the latter is indicated.”
And that strange single word uttered by the feathered confessor? Explains Chris, “‘Otamys’ in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) – a work from which Gladys Mitchell often quotes – is Cockney for ‘Anatomies’, meaning corpses of hanged men that were consigned to Surgeons’ Hall for use in anatomy classes.”
Obscure as its literary and geographical references may be, the parrot still proves a colorful addition to this story. Joyka explains her affinity this way: “I have to say, I love the parrot whose squawking only a psychoanalyst of Mrs. B.’s caliber could piece together into clues to solve the mystery. The monkey? We have not settled his or her place in the story.”
With Sunset over Soho, Gladys Mitchell chose to place her story within a window of history that is at once contemporary and global when she wrote it. With events being described non-linearly and set against a backdrop of wartime actions occurring between 1939 and 1941, there is by definition less latitude for the chronicler than an author fixing the setting in more general terms.
Interestingly, Gladys Mitchell may have had a winking reason to schedule the group’s arrival into England on April 19th – the date is in fact the author’s birthday! Some websites (including Wikipedia) say her birthdate is 21 April, 1901, but her birth certificate shows 19 April as the date.
The chronology confusion doesn’t end with the missing five months, however. Chris points to another instance of time out of joint. He writes, “In Chapters 15 through 18 we are still shuttling between Mrs Bradley’s narrative of events in late 1939 (including her investigations once David is reported missing) and her later conversations with Pirberry after the discovery of the body (thus in what must be November 1940). The awkwardness here is that she is no longer telling her ‘story’ reproducing Harben’s version of events but at this stage is telling the story of herself and of Pirberry, referring to both in the third person, and for no obvious reason. The style and voice of the ‘dramatic’ framing in Bradley-Pirberry dialogue are no longer adequately differentiated from those of the inset narrative, as they had been in the poetically-coloured style of Chapters 4 to 7. The entire split-chronology construction,” Chris concludes, “seems to lack clear purpose, and is bungled in execution.” The authorial choices and their questionable effect certainly add to the book’s unevenness.
Tracy comments that Sunset over Soho’s specificity of place, and the details provided within the prose, are very enjoyable, and I would agree. She singles out this passage as an example:
But these were the days before the blitz; before Dunkirk; before the capitulation of the French or the invasion of Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg; before the threat of an invasion of England. All seemed calm, even normal, and out in France an English Field Security Officer stationed at Croise Laroche, just north of Lille, was still keeping fit by doing “the steeplechase course … occasionally in the evenings, on foot, taking all the jumps except the water-jump, while the French A.A. gunners...” jeered at his incomprehensible antics.
Lynn M. also enjoys the author’s eye for details, and opines that “the scenes in the pub and the gym are very funny. The list of the goods in Plug’s shop and the description of the room behind it are very convincing.”
Chris chooses two locations, one foreign and one domestic, to discuss further. The first concerns David Harben’s brush with Spanish sailors. Chris writes, “The significance of the ‘non-belligerent’ Spanish boat that rescues David in Chapter 13 is that Spain was officially neutral in the war, although General Franco, recent victor of the Civil War (1936-1939), was sympathetic to Hitler, and offered him covert help. Gladys Mitchell’s evident knowledge of the islands, and of Spanish, suggests that she must, like the oddly anonymous English ladies whom David meets, have holidayed there, which it was still safe for foreign tourists to do during the Civil War period.” Chris notes that Mitchell “would later refer to the islands as a background for one character in Death and the Maiden (1947), and set most of The Twenty-Third Man (1957) on a fictional Canary Island.” The Canaries also feature in the Stephen Hockaby title Shallow Brown, published in 1936.
Thank you once more to those who contributed this week, and to those reading along with us. We will learn next week whether readers feel this strange story finishes on a strong note or a weak one.