WINKING AT THE BRIM (1974)

1974 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1977 McKay Publishing (U.S.); 1979 Magna Large Print.

A shoal of fish--salmon or loch trout, maybe--began to make its way with such a rush of speed that the water was broken with rainbow diamonds of spray and the silver flash of bellies as the scurrying fish leapt from the water in their panic...

...Another disturbance in the water followed and Sally stood, panting and transfixed, as a snake-like head on about a yard of dark-grey neck appeared above the water-line and not very far off-shore. Sally was aware of a foul and death-like smell and then of a large, pale eye in the flattened head. For an instant she felt certain that the creature looked surprised, and then, in widening circles of rippling brown water still flecked by the tempestuous rush of the fish, it dramatically and vertically submerged, but before the head disappeared and was lost to sight Sally could have sworn that the pale eye winked at her.

 

Sir Ferdinand Lestrange's daughter Sally gets invited to join a monster-hunting expedition. The group--led by publisher and folklore enthusiast Sir Humphrey Calshott--plans to monitor the waters of Loch Tannasg in western Scotland for any signs of a Loch Ness-like creature, and the group members approach their task with varying degrees of seriousness. A pair of twin spinsters hope to indulge their artistic side, while a retired army major and his meek wife simply want a holiday. The Calshott's daughter Phyllis, Sally well remembers from girlhood experience, has a tendency to prattle, and the unlikeable Angela Barton seems to enjoy spreading nasty insinuations about and among the other party members. Reluctant to be tied down to a caravan containing such aggravating personalities, Sally offers to drive her car up and act as liaison to the three camps.

Sally is quite grateful for the freedom her vehicle offers, and between Angela's gossip and her own observations concludes that some dalliances are taking place. The tranquil loch is also cause for close attention: first Sally, then the twins, briefly encounter the fleeting lake creature. Their news is overshadowed by the discovery of Angela Barton's wet body in an abandoned house, a suicide note nearby, a wound on her throat, and a thermos of poisoned coffee near at hand. But if the woman tried to kill herself, reasons Sally, why was the note still dry if she attempted first to drown herself in the loch? And why is there no residue of poison in the thermos' cup?

For answers, Sally consults her grandmother, Dame Beatrice, who has an impressive track record for just this sort of problem. Together, Sally, Dame Beatrice, and secretary Laura Gavin interview and investigate until they find a solution, and one which calls upon a final appearance of the Loch Tannasg creature.


Gladys Mitchell often provides wonderful background settings for her many stories, creating scenery with such picturesque, unique narrative detail that this reader can't resist surrendering to that imagined world (it is the same suspension of disbelief and author/reader relationship that make all good fiction vibrant and compelling). Certain Mitchell books are more successful at this--and more pleasurable in the visiting--than others, but often the striking setting helps establish a mood and spirit unique to that particular tale; so instead of feeling that every story is merely a variation on the previous one (a criticism I hold for American hard-boiled detective authors), the changing locales give Mitchell's stories an individual tone and new (literal and figurative) ground. To understand this point, simply read three or four of Mitchell's "travelogue" titles, where the mysteries unfold abroad: the Old World dust of Greece in Come Away, Death, the dark intrigue of stone circles among The Dancing Druids, the wartime sea voyages of Sunset over Soho, and the sunny, balmy Spanish island hiding The Twenty-Third Man each have a unique flavor and itinerary. Even when Mrs. Bradley stays in rural England, the results are just as diverse: the farcically mad village of The Saltmarsh Murders, the twilit, somber one of The Rising of the Moon, and the pagan, restless one of The Devil at Saxon Wall are cousins, but as different in character as the London Thames and the Norfolk Broads.

Personally, I think that such diversity of style and tone is an amazing accomplishment for any author, and it is one of the strongest reasons to discover and experience Gladys Mitchell's rewarding mystery series. Occasionally, though, a plotline falls short of the refreshing setting that supports it; Winking at the Brim is such an example. It joins a group of titles which includes Lament for Leto, The Murder of Busy Lizzie, and The Whispering Knights, each yoking a memorable locale to a routine and generally disposable plot. In Winking, Scotland's moody, fog-enshrouded countryside is rather awkwardly made to witness the unexceptional victim-who-knows-too-much storyline played out before it. The participants are broadly drawn, and no character, from murder victim to prime suspect, makes much of an impression upon the reader. Creature sightings aside, almost all of the mystery's action occurs outside the story, and one is left taking the characters' words on motive and method.

Perhaps I'm more disappointed than usual because Loch Tannasg makes such a great setting, and that with a better puzzle at its heart Winking at the Brim could have been a late, great classic in Miss Mitchell's canon. Instead, it's merely highly readable and worth a visit, though Sally's adventure in murder rolls through like a Scottish fog, possessing very little substance and no real reason to linger as the day soldiers on.