Thursday, April 05, 2012

The Return of Mrs. Croc

Simon and Keith Innes are two young boys who are supremely excited: the circus is coming to town! It’s true that the festivities will be taking place on a Good Friday, but it only comes once a year and it should be taken advantage of. And in honour of Good Friday, the only reasonable thing to do is to sneak into the circus without paying!

The action begins on Holy Thursday, when the boys sneak out of their house to prepare their route for the following night. But suddenly they see a sinister-looking figure clutching a knife—a knife that looks rather like the knife owned by their elder brother, with whom they live! The next day, a grisly discovery is made—one of the circus people, a tight-rope walker, is found murdered, slashed to death by a Jack-the-Ripper-like murderer… and the bad news is, this is only the beginning.

The circus leaves the town without performing, but soon enough, the villagers cower in fear whenever the full moon is up… for it is then that the ripper strikes, killing women and mutilating their bodies. These events are all seen through the eyes of the two young boys—in particular, the narrator is none other than Simon, and the story is not so much a mystery as a coming-of-age-story. The two boys are thrown into the investigation right alongside the local police inspector and the witch-like Mrs. Bradley, who is sent down to investigate the deaths at the express wishes of Scotland Yard. She takes rather a liking to the boys. They deal not only with the murderer, but must also grapple with their mathematics assignments and they must answer a terribly important question: do Catholics only need to go to church once a year, and if so, should they convert?

It’s a good thing that the other elements in this book are so strong, because the mystery is, to be frank, bloody awful. The murderer instantly became obvious to me on page 9—and the story in my edition doesn’t start on page 1—it doesn’t even start on page 5! But it’s not enough that the killer is obvious—oh, no… we must also endeavour to make the ending as confusing and full of loopholes as possible! For instance, there’s a scene where the boys finally get to see the circus. They are told to keep an eye out for this-and-that while there, but of course they have plenty of fun in the meantime. Then they finally spot this-and-that, and they give the prearranged signal. What relevance does this have to the plot? Absolutely none. It’s never referred to again, and in fact, the ending directly contradicts the idea that this scene ever had any point whatsoever.

As for logical loopholes, if you want to see psychiatry at its most gloriously subjective, look no further than Mrs. Bradley in this book. The police start with a perfectly reasonable notion of what kind of killer they’re looking for, but Mrs. Bradley gives a completely different psychological profile. Who’s right? Why, Mrs. Bradley of course, for the excellent reason that she’s the detective and therefore can never be wrong. What made the police’s initial assumption so unreasonable? Well, Mrs. Bradley said otherwise. What was the significance of the moon? Well… God alone knows. At least I hope so. I wouldn’t be surprised if God was just as puzzled over this moonshine (pun perfectly intended).

All this sounds as though I hate the book… but nothing could be further from the truth. I have brought up all these problems in the book’s plot because I want to get these over with before I reach the end of the review—I’d hate to finish on such a severely negative note! This book is without doubt a masterpiece of writing, but don’t set the bar high on your mystery expectations.

The book’s best success is the writing from the POV of a child. It’s got that perfect mix of childlike innocence and that manner many kids have of wanting to be treated as grown-up. It all rings perfectly genuine. Simon is a wonderful character, and we see him forced to grow up with this murder investigation. We also see the steps he takes to avoid Sunday school and to protect his elder brother when it seems he might be the murderer. All this is most fascinating, and the relationship Simon has with Mrs. Bradley has a curious note of poignancy and tenderness to it. Mrs. Bradley is just as harsh, witch-like, and cackling as ever, but she teaches Simon a thing or two about life and she’s rather like a mother-figure to him.

The atmosphere meanwhile is brilliant. Just… brilliant. The slowly increasing fear and terror of the villagers… the way the tension is ratcheted up notch by notch… that final chase in the moonlight… everything adds up beautifully, and it’s hard to describe the overall effect. I’m at a loss of words.

So overall, I tend to agree that The Rising of the Moon is a masterpiece from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction… but you have to keep an open mind when the conclusion rolls around, because it is among the most ridiculous, plot-hole-ridden endings in detective fiction. It’s up to you to decide how you will take the ending. Maybe you will decide, as I did, that it doesn’t affect the quality of the book enough to lower it. Maybe you will decide to write your local Member of Parliament to protest. (It's not like they're doing anything important.) But if you’re willing to swallow the ending, you will see that the book is a very worthwhile experience!

12 comments:

  1. MItchell is fantastic at atmosphere and her ideas (and some individual scenes) are brilliant and if you treat her books as children's fiction they're alright.

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  2. I'm convinced she was spoofing the genre in nearly every book she wrote. Read When Last She Died and tell me that that the bizarre duel in the ktichen in the final pages is meant to be taken seriously. I think it's interesting that she said that John Dickson Carr was a very nice man but she found his books unreadable. I find most of Mitchell's books unreadable and it's a miracle if I manage to finish one. But I did manage to get through this one. If you think this ending is loopy you ought to see the TV version with Diana Rigg. They rewrote the whole story, changed the identity of the killer, and it made even less sense.

    For me Merlin's Furlong is her best -- nothing comes anywhere near it in terms of lucidity and entertainment.

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    1. In that case, I'm an accredited miracle worker and should be canonized promptly. You can call me Simons Templar.

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  3. I have read very little by Mitchell, but I have read When Last I Died. I had to force myself through it. She does seem to be very hit and miss. Some books (eg. Watson's Choice) I thoroughly enjoyed. I do own a copy of The Rising of the Moon and will definitely give it a try after such an interesting review. And I will certainly seek out Merlin's Furlong after John's endorsement.

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  4. And this is one of her more coherent books! I like the story quite a bit. There's another nostalgic one like this she wrote much later, Late, Late in the Evening, one of her best later books.

    Generally my favorites are the earlier ones from the late 1920s and 1930s, where she took the formal detective structure more seriously (while still satirizing it frequently).

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  5. Cheers Patrick, great to read such an enthusiastic appraisal. I must admit, I find Mitchell a real challenge - and one that I keep failing! John is right about the TV version, though I actually really liked what they ultimately did with it (in fact it was pretty original in TV terms).

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  6. I have read and enjoyed her books for some time now, but I tend to agree with those who say that she really ought to be approached as a writer full-stop, rather than as a mystery writer. THE RISING OF THE MOON does excel, as the review says, in terms of character and mood, but it's pretty obvious that she became less interested in formal detectives structure very quickly! That some of the books are properly clued is nice, but it obviously was not her main interest.

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  7. I always describe Gladys Mitchell's books as being an acquired taste, Patrick. As a general rule, I've come to like her, but she can be difficult, particularly for an American audience, in her embrace of extreme (and extremely British) eccentricities and oddities, and she DOES tend to be casual about revealing the killer's identity midway through the book (or earlier). I liked THE RISING OF THE MOON and I agree with you - it works, I think, primarily because of Simon's character.

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  8. Apologies to everyone for more or less ignoring comments of late, but exam season made me stop discussion for a bit, especially when I tried juggling two exams in terms of priorities.

    I have to agree that Mitchell is an acquired taste -- very eccentric and just plain odd. I've been pretty lucky with the first two Mitchells I've read, though-- they were both great.

    I have not seen the TV series yet and am not sure whether I intend to. It sounds like it might be laughably bad or infuriatingly bad. I'm not sure whether to take the plunge.

    @John
    A bizarre duel in a kitchen? You've just given me a mental flashback to a hilarious Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, SUDDEN DEATH, a self-aware DIE HARD clone that, at one point, pits JCVD against the Pittsburgh Penguins' mascot in a duel to the death in a kitchen, complete with a cleaver, meat slicer, and industrial-strength dishwasher. :)

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  9. Aw. This one isn't in the eight-pack of Mitchells I bought the other day :( Nice review though!

    I remember watching the Diana Rigg series when it first came out when I was a kid, long before I'd read any Mitchell. Even then, it seemed obvious to me that the main problem was that you just can't condense a GAD novel's worth of plot into sixty minutes. They were all rushed and confusing.

    Of course a secondary problem seems to be that they didn't really want to adapt Mitchell in the first place - Now I've actually read some of the source novels, I see that they changed everything: the plots, the tone and Mrs Bradley are completely different. But if even if the adaptations had been in good faith, they still wouldn't have worked. An hour just isn't long enough. (I see they were bought by PBS. Does anyone know if they try to cut them even further to fit adverts in? Or did they do the sane thing and expand the running time to 90 minutes?)

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  10. Patrick, this is a terrific review. You're spot on that the book is a weak detective story but a great piece of characterisation. The second time I read it, I approached oit as a pure detective story - and detested it. Older and wiser, I read it for the third time a decade later, and loved it.

    I'd like to see you review one of Mitchell's pure detective stories - maybe Brazen Tongue or The Devil at Saxon Wall. Come Away, Death is also terrific, if you know your Greek myths (and, from your Paul Halter reviews, you do!)

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    1. Oh, and you might enjoy St Peter's Finger, which is set in a convent - Mitchell's sister was a nun - and has an impressive well clued double solution.

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