LAMENT FOR LETO (1971)

1971 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1989 Sphere paperback.

"And why did you drag up that dreadful affair of thirty years ago? What bearing can Armstrong's death..."

"His murder. It was no ordinary death."

"Very well, his murder. What bearing can it have on what has happened now?"

"Probably none. But does it not appear to you more than strange that both these so-called pilgramages have ended in violent death? Could it be more than coincidence?"

"If you're asking me whether I'm superstitious, well, of course I am, but on this second pilgramage the circumstances, all of them, have been so utterly different that there could not be any connection."

At the British Museum, Dame Beatrice runs into Mr. Ronald Dick, an acquaintance from a fateful expedition to Greece that occurred some years ago. Dick tells her that he's organizing another tour of the islands, and asks Dame Beatrice to consider accompanying them. The old sleuth agrees, and soon she meets her fellow travellers: an obstinate novelist named Chloe Cowie; Mary Cowie, her ward; the botanist Henry Owen, his two sons, and their tutor; and Ronald Dick's two adopted Greek charges.

Tensions surface aboard the cruise ship, and a wealthy passenger's jewelry is stolen. Dame Beatrice quickly sets things right, but once on land, Mr. Dick begins to hear strange speeches of warning, and believes that the expedition may end tragically. And for certain persons, it does: the demanding Chloe Cowie goes missing, and a woman's body is discovered below the sea cliffs of Sappho's Leap. But is the woman Mrs. Cowie, or another person from the past? Dame Beatrice, no pun intended, gets to the bottom of the mystery.


For me, Lament for Leto's rather infamous reputation had preceded my reading of the book. I had heard from very respectable sources that this sequel-of-sorts to 1937's Come Away, Death was convoluted and disappointing. Mitchell essayist William A.S. Sarjeant wrote that even a second reading of Lament for Leto failed to make clear exactly which character was responsible for each of the story's many actions, and fellow Mitchell-phile Nicholas Fuller rated this as one of his least favorite Mrs. Bradley tales, observing that the few characters carried over from the 1937 book had been given different, contrasting personalities in Leto. To address these criticisms, I offer my own (subjective) observations: I did not find Leto's plot tangled beyond comprehension, and with its straightforward, linear structure, it was actually less confusing than some other titles I've encountered. As for the central mysteries of who murdered who and why, the logic is clear, the motive apparent, and, if anything, the solution is rather anticlimactic. True, we find in Leto that the characters chose far different paths than we were led to believe they were destined for at the end of Come Away, Death, but the story stands on its own in a decent way, and Leto's journey (for me) is notably better than those found in some truly irritating books, like Adders on the Heath or Uncoffin'd Clay.

So it's better than expected, but still firmly weighted among those pleasant but forgettable middle-band Gladys Mitchell titles. It doesn't help that Lament for Leto invokes a far superior earlier book and thus begs comparison. Fans who have not yet read Come Away, Death should be warned that Leto reveals both murderer and motive of that earlier tale, and that Leto's Greek travels are only enhanced by familiarity with the 1937 expedition. Whereas the dust, heat and ruined sites contribute to Come Away, Death's deliciously foreign, decidedly uncomfortable (and even hostile) atmosphere, Lament for Leto's Greek islands and waters stay within the far less thrilling lines of commercial travelogue. Death gave one a sense of isolated danger (are we really touring deserted Greece with a crazed murderer?), but Leto doesn't venture far beyond the cruise ship and the staffed hotel.

There's another detail here that bothers me: no fewer than three of the travellers possess the skill to create a sort of literal ventriloquism; they can throw their voices to the extent that the sound seems to emanate from a person or object several feet away. Ultimately, this gimmick isn't integral to the mystery's solution, but all the same, it's rather a silly device for a mystery novel, ranking up there in dubious merit with the ponies'-tails-as-secret-messages gambit essayed in Adders on the Heath. Miss Mitchell usually stretches believability to the breaking point (it's one reason why I return to her tales again and again), but occasionally one hears an audible snap, and no talk of ventriloquism can convince me otherwise about its source.