SHALLOW BROWN (1936)

1936 Michael Joseph. [Published under the pseudonym Stephen Hockaby.]

They went inside the insanitary little house and found their room.

"Goodnight," said Vi-lert. She took off her shoes and jacket, and rolled the blanket round her. Then she lowered herself to the floor.

"Haven't said your prayers," said the captain.

"Haven't said 'em since I was eight. You ought to live with Leonard. No room for anyone else to get a prayer in edgewise. He oversteps the mark for our house, I always reckon."

With this profound observation, she rolled herself over, faced the wall and slept. The captain took out his purse and his wallet and carefully counted his money. Then he lay on it. But no one came near them all night, and in the morning the woman gave them gofio, fruit and water, and they discovered that a married couple, a couple of mothers-in-law, an old, infirm man whose relationship to the rest of the family seemed a little obscure, three children, a goat, and five of the sorriest chickens that Vi-lert had ever seen also occupied the house. Everyone was most amiable, however.

The restless nature of sailor Tom Mansey pushes him to trade his work on a Thames dredger for a place on a coal cargo ship running the continental coast. A born boxer with the power to charm when he wishes, Tom's colorful family is left to its own devices when he's away: brother Leonard builds his life around the redemption of the Salvation Army and his kid sister Violet--who without exception is known as Vi-lert--is a serious contender to become an Olympics-caliber swimmer. Also left on shore is ex-girlfriend Daisy, who Tom has forcibly reunited with another paternal candidate so he could slip the knot himself, and Nancy, a meek girl who has fallen harder for the sailor than she would like. Tom's plans to pursue Nancy further are complicated when he is abandoned on the island of Madeira--with no tears shed by the bruisers on the ship's crew--and encouraged by the local bar owner to marry his daughter. Though he is fond of the kind and lovely Lucia, it's not part of Tom's plan, and he works as a mountain sled runner for the tourists until he can catch a ship and leave the impoverished island.

When he finally returns to London (by sneaking aboard a docked grain ship and throwing a sailor overboard once they're at sea, thus creating an open position), Tom finds that Leonard's antipathy towards him has grown. The feeling is mutual. Sister Vi-lert's constant training has strengthened her considerable swimming skills, but it has also nurtured a frustrating boredom felt by the adventure-seeking girl. Nancy wishes Tom would stop looking to the sea and offer to settle down on land, for she won't consider a relationship with him otherwise. But Tom chooses the "Mary Meadows," a ship making its way to the Grand Canary islands and beyond.

This time, however, another stowaway is on board: Vi-lert hides herself in the hold, lonely for her oft-absent brother and tired of the city. Along the voyage the crew mutinies, believing the owners are planning to sink the ship and its worthless cargo for the insurance money. They strand the well-meaning captain and Vi-lert at the port of Santa Catalina and go off to search for sunken treasure, keeping one of the owners and his diving equipment on board for that purpose. It falls to Tom and a trustworthy mate to form a plan that will overthrow the mutineers and allow him to rescue Vi-lert from the island of Las Palomas, and then navigate their way back to London.


Like Gabriel's Hold released a year previously, the Stephen Hockaby novel Shallow Brown focuses on contemporary laborers making their living and managing their lives by the sea. And as with that previous title, Gladys Mitchell once again builds sympathy for (and notes the complexity of) ordinary people fighting to stay afloat. With the character of Tom Mansey, the author has cast a near-antihero to drive the story: he is given the latitude to make several selfish and immoral choices before more noble motives begin to stir. Nearly all the characters here are more sinner than saint, and their flaws help sketch them as human, recognizable and relatable figures. There is much dark humor in the family's grimy existence and daily routines. Tom's brother Leonard and kid sister Vi-lert are remarkable fictional creations, both with values, creeds and aspirations that are wildly opposite and yet completely believable, especially as a result of their circumstances and opportunities offered to them.

Gladys Mitchell has commented that a great amount of research was required for her Stephen Hockaby novels. It is worth noting that, from my impression of the texts, a contemporary setting was likely just as time-intensive for the author to fashion as one set in the distant past. Where other titles display ambitious historical tapestries from the 14th or 16th centuries (in Seven Stars and Orion and Grand Master, respectively), the author shapes the modern-day world of Shallow Brown with the same amount of meticulousness to details and character psychology. The topography of the Canary Islands, the daily routine of a trawler, and the protocol of a Salvation Army meeting are all rendered with equal conviction and truth. For me, each of the Hockaby booksóas with all of the best Mrs. Bradley talesócarry the reader along both by the assurance of the narrative and the imaginative sweep of the story.

Shallow Brown may be the least romantic of the Stephen Hockaby books, but it is also one of the most immediate and heartfelt: a chronicle of a restless, lower-class, and complicated family that has echoes of the scrappy liveliness found in the characters of Zola.