Sunset over Soho by Gladys Mitchell (1943)

This novel – one of the Mrs Bradley mystery series for which its author is chiefly known – centres around the strange discovery of the body of an old man in a makeshift coffin following a London air raid. The opening of the novel finds the inscrutable sleuth-psychologist (her day job is working as psychiatric consultant for the Home Office) working as a doctor at a shelter for air raid casualties. Already we find her privately sizing up – in her inimitable fashion – the people she is thrown into contact with, noting (albeit from a distance) the ‘solidarity of purpose and essential comradeship of these […] people so fortunately in juxtaposition’. On finding that the newly discovered body has been dead for some two or three years, and appears to have been poisoned, a murder hunt is soon underway.

Mitchell herself was a prolific author, and this is one of sixty-three novels she wrote featuring Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley. Noted admirer Philip Larkin was among those to comment on the ‘total originality’ of her work, and certainly the plot and structure of Sunset over Soho are nothing less than inventive (even if this can on occasion try the patience of the reader). Mrs Bradley herself cuts an intriguing figure, whose fearless, detached and infallible air perhaps does little to endear her to those whose paths she crosses. Her attitude towards the blitz seems a case in point:

Mrs Bradley had become interested in the effects and results of air raids. Noise stimulated her. She did not connect, she found, the crump of bombs, and the whistling silver and thrill of their descent, with an active and virulent enemy, but regarded the raids with the objective interest she would have felt for natural phenomena – hurricanes, earthquakes and landslides.

Bradley’s unconventional morality is, of course, precisely the basis of her interest as a character. People and circumstances are regarded with a cool diagnostician’s eye, as so many ‘phenomena’ to be scrutinised and understood.  Just as a murder presents a puzzle to be solved (rather than a crime to be deplored) so the calmness of Londoners in the face of the air attacks is not so much something to be admired as it is a source of fascination:  ‘their acceptance of the appalling din and danger was, to a psychologist, unexpected and very interesting’ (it’s worth noting that Mitchell herself had read Freud, though she denied it had any influence on her characters).

Aside from Mrs Bradley herself, a central figure here is the novelist David Harben. Harben is cast as ‘an artist in the making; unsure of himself; egotistical, self-centred, yet open to impressions’, though he remains something of an enigma. Despite the fact that he is among those suspected of involvement in the old man’s death (due to his proximity to the original location of the body), among the most memorable passages here is the account of the two days he spends helping to rescue stricken soldiers from the beach at Dunkirk (we learn early on that he spends his weekends in the warmer months boating off the coast of England). This section is both evocative and, at times, moving – a fact all the more remarkable given the opacity of the prose in other parts of the novel:

All night the work went on. As they lay off after taking on or disembarking troops, Harben and Sister Mary Dominic could hear the splash of oars and the low-toned voices of sailors. It was one of the most eerie experiences of Harben’s life – this hearing of quiet, civilised, decent voices and with them the sounds of summer, the plash and creaking of oars, and after them the crashing guns, and the screaming and whining of the bombs, and then the silence again.

It should be pointed out that the story itself is narrated in hindsight by Mrs Bradley (to investigating officer Inspector Pirberry). This – in spite of the various subsections, replete with literary allusions, into which the novel is divided – can have a disorientating effect on the reader, and does result in quite a demanding read. While the backdrop to the story is furnished with bombings, Spanish sailors, strange riverside dwellings and the murky world of the London blackouts, it is clear that Mitchell is not about to meet the reader halfway; consequently one is plunged into the thick of events, forced into the role of detective merely to try to make sense of what is going on. This is arguably no bad trait in itself, as here is an author with sufficient regard for her readers as to not feel the need to over-explain things along the way. While Sunset over Soho may not be the ideal introduction to Mitchell’s considerable body of work, there is, I think, more than enough here to make the reader want to explore further.

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