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Come Away, Death

Page history last edited by PBworks 18 years, 6 months ago

Mitchell, Gladys - Come Away, Death (1937)



Review by Nick Fuller


This, Gladys Mitchell’s eighth detective story, is easily one of her best, splendidly written, and with an original and unusual plot. Set in Greece, and involving Greek mythology, it immediately captivates this reader, who grew up on Greek mythology. Greece is vividly drawn, described as ‘easily the most uncomfortable of all the countries of Europe. No inns, many bugs, high mountains, no roads, a difficult language, uneatable food — I quite adore it.’ The atmosphere is curious and indescribable, compounded of the weight of history, mythology, ruins, the supernatural, and the effect of light. The characterisation is superb, with well-differentiated and interesting portraits. Mrs. Bradley and the archaeologist Sir Rudri Hopkinson are certainly the most original, but the other characters are all recognisably human, showing Mitchell’s understanding of the human psyche.


The plot concerns an attempt on the part of the insane Sir Rudri, whose “mind was precariously balanced between pseudo-scholarly enthusiasm and some more obvious form of insanity”, to discover what the Mysteries of Eleusis were. ‘Rudri thinks — or says he thinks — that if one could reproduce all the conditions, one would find out.’ However, Sir Rudri’s other motive is to humiliate an archaeological rival — the insanity and the revenge provide both the bizarre atmosphere and the later motive for murder. The attempt to discover what the Mysteries were necessitates the visiting of several different archaeological sites: ‘We are going first to Eleusis…; from there to Epidaurus, to see what we can do with the Aesculapius cult—the god of healing — thence to Mycenae for the Homeric offerings, then back here again before we cross to Ephesus, unless it seems better to return to Nauplia and take a boat from there. At Eleusis, of course, we revive the Artemis worship.’


The Mysteries of Eleusis are particularly memorable. The night-time processions are vividly drawn, tinged with a touch of tragic mysticism — a sense of futility:


The imaginary spectacle of Sir Rudri walking with torches in the dusk of the Greek evening, chanting strange hymns and sorrowful litanies to the Eleusinian gods Iacchus and Dionysus, and to the goddesses Persephone and Demeter, and to the god-king Triptolemus. She could see him, dogged idealist and romancer, proceeding ploddingly the while along the petrol-haunted, dusty Sacred Way which now led, in the age of progress, from one Greek slum to another.


The tour group visits Eleusis, where they witness a (faked) manifestation of Iacchus; and Epidaurus, whose “lonely road and the lonely valley, the vast, bare, empty theatre, the Hieron of Aesculapius, a place of mystery and faith to generations who had gone, impress (one of the tour group) with a growing sense of fear”, and where the harmless snakes representing the god are exchanged for English adders.


However, it is the two last sites — Mycenae and Ephesus — which are the most memorable. Mycenae is described with a rare lyrical beauty:


She looked abroad, over the misty and indeterminate landscape which soon the sun would reveal as the Argive plain. She looked to the shadowy mountains, dark purple, and massed like cloud, and, nearer, to the citadel of Larissa, and thought of the burning beacons, heralds of the fall of Troy. By night the place had seemed no wilder than and not as lonely as many English country districts she had stayed in. The great walls had been companionable; the cow a pantomime animal; the little adventure of Dick’s tumbling into the pit an incident far removed from the terrors which lived in the plays of Aeschylus. But at dawn, and, even more, she knew, beneath the hot noonday sun, Mycenae came into her own. Her tragedy and her greatness loomed like battle on the landscape. The walls enclosed the dead, and the great excavations, where Schliemann had kissed the gold death-mask of Agamemnon, yawned like the graves that they were.


And again:


The legends of the Atridae hung brooding over the heavy, broken walls, about the Lion Gate, and round the unguarded graves. The dark passion of Clytemnestra, the anguish of young Orestes, made heavy the lowering atmosphere, soaked beyond bearing already, with the heat of dead air before a storm.


The scene at Mycenae is one of the most spell-binding in all Mitchell’s work — an extraordinarily powerful and imaginative scene, establishing Mitchell as the greatest of detective story writers, and showing Mrs. Bradley at the top of her powers and compared to “the original Pythoness of Delphi” (although an earlier scene, in which she traps a snake in her suitcase, and uses it as a pillow, is also a high point), as she attempts to prevent the sacrifice of three little boys:


‘Children?’ said Mrs. Bradley. In the sunset light of the wild glen of the Atrides she stood before him like some ancient prophetess and waved her skinny arms and menaced him with her hideous, leering lips. Her black eyes, reddened, it seemed, by the last rays of the sun, the declining Apollo, held (Sir Rudri’s), and he felt he could not take his gaze from hers. ‘Children?’ The word went echoing over the hill and against the thick walls, and shouted itself to silence over the plain. ‘What of the young sons of Thyestes, who seduced the wife of Atreus? What of their spilt blood crying aloud for vengeance? What of the curse which descended to Agamemnon and to Orestes?’


I’d like to see Sayers or Christie do that!


Ephesus, the last port of call on Sir Rudri’s extraordinary tour was certainly the largest, the most interesting, and the most romantic. Even Epidaurus, for all its upland beauty and the glory of its almost perfect theatre, could not compare … with a district which was in many ways so like an English landscape as to banish all sense of strangeness, all feeling of not being at home. There was nothing remote or fearful, nothing awe-inspiring or uncomfortable about Ephesus. Before them, as they gathered about the baggage near the Stadium, stretched a winding, inviting path which soon branched off to give a wide view of the ruins. The ruins themselves were not desolate. It was rather as though some experimental building had been abandoned before completion. There was nothing sad about Ephesus. The uncovered, excavated part of the Sacred Way, the exciting and inviting little path which led up to the back-stage passages of the theatre, the theatre itself, weed-grown, ruinous, and delightfully sunny and friendly, the royal road, the Roman arcadiane, leading from the harbour to the city, the stepped library of Celsus and his solid, inviolate tomb, combined to enravish the party.



Ephesus, never quite silent, always exciting and lovable, was fascinating, mysterious, and full of ghosts by night.


There is a powerful night-time scene at the Temple of Artemis, one with a genuine frisson of the bizarre and the uncanny; and it is at Ephesus, on page 234 of 320, that the dead body — or, rather, the severed head — appears, causing Mrs. Bradley to demonstrate her detective powers at their best. Some critics may carp that the solution is “somewhat improbable” — but Mitchell at her best is always improbable.


Or, as one of the characters says of Sir Rudri Hopkinson, ‘It’s true he isn’t sound on some points, but he has the vision, the enthusiasm, and, of course, the imagination.’ Like character, like author.


A sequel, Lament for Leto, was written in 1971.

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