Monday, January 3, 2011

Convent on Styx - Gladys Mitchell

The beginning of a new reading year is a time to draw breath, rearrange the reading & library stacks & start some new books. Last night I started reading Memoirs of a Highland Lady & I enjoyed the first chapter. Her style is very easy to read & it’s amazing that she had such recall of her early life without referring to diaries or notes. At lunchtime today I started a Lesley Cookman mystery, Murder in Bloom. I’ve read the earlier books in this series & they’re good, cosy mysteries with a middle-aged heroine who has a bossy cat. I can empathise with her! I also ruthlessly pruned the stacks of books I’ve brought home from work & am now down to about 15 books that I fully intend to read. I’m just not sure when, exactly.

Yesterday, I finished reading Gladys Mitchell’s Convent on Styx. This has been reprinted by Greyladies, one of my favourite publishers. They specialize in books for adults by authors mainly known for their children’s books & books set in Scotland (where Greyladies is based), so I was a little surprised to see a Gladys Mitchell on their list. But, I love books about nuns & convents, murder mysteries especially, so I couldn’t resist this. The Introduction explains the attraction of this particular Mitchell novel for Greyladies. The convent in question is a school as well & Mitchell was a teacher by profession, writing her mysteries during holidays.

Convent on Styx isn’t a conventional murder mystery. Mitchell’s detective, Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through the novel. The first 100pp is a very entertaining look at the personalities of the nuns & secular inhabitants of the convent & school. The book was written in the 1970s, after the Second Vatican Council, & the changes brought about by Vatican 2 haven’t been welcomed by all the nuns. The Headmistress, Sister Mary Hilary, is a go-ahead young woman in her 30s. She entered the religious life after a secular teaching career & a propensity to go on demonstrations & stand on picket lines supporting feminism & nuclear disarmament. Sister Hilary is an excellent headmistress who has revolutionised the school & increased enrolments so much that they now have a waiting list. Unfortunately her economic decision to turn the boarding school into a day school upset some of the village shopkeepers who made most of their income from the boarders & their pocket money.

The Prioress, Sister Mary St Elmo, is in charge of the convent. An older woman, Sister St Elmo has clashed with Sister Hilary in the past, but they generally work together well. Sister Mary Wolstan is Sister Hilary’s secretary, a little dissatisfied with the new regime as it meant that her Commercial Studies classes were dropped in favour of more modern courses, but adjusting to her new, lesser role. The school used to take boarders but is now a day school. The teaching nuns have been joined by secular teachers who live outside & the former dormitories have been converted to provide accommodation for paying guests, elderly women who live at the convent in exchange for their pensions.

The current guests are Mrs Polkinghorne, a Spaniard who moved to England when she married. Her daughter is a nun in another of the Order’s convents & Mrs Polkinghorne is grateful for the quiet life she can now enjoy. The other two guests are not so benign. Miss Lipscumbe has lived at the convent for some years & knows more of what goes on than anyone else. She’s often in conflict with Mrs Wilks, the third guest, a widow who resents the restrictions of living at the convent but knows she could hardly afford to live anywhere else. Then there’s Tom Quince, general handyman & driver, a practical man who doesn't miss much.

The convent is disturbed by a series of anonymous letters. The first accuses a nameless Sister of carrying on in an unseemly manner in the hut used for woodworking classes. Another accuses one of the nuns, Sister Mary Raymund, of deliberately running over a child in the convent car. The incident was clearly an accident & the police agreed but there was ill-feeling among the villagers at the time. When Mrs Wilks leaves the convent to live with a rich nephew, another letter accuses the sisters of not caring to find out what has happened to the old lady. She never mentioned a nephew before, has she been murdered for her money?

The letters become more threatening & when the secular teachers start receiving them as well, the nuns have to act. Sister Hilary & Sister St Elmo suspect that Miss Lipscumbe is responsible for the letters & they try to frighten her into stopping by mentioning the police. Sister Hilary went to school with Laura Menzies, Dame Beatrice’s secretary, & writes to ask if Dame Beatrice would come to the convent in her capacity as a psychologist & investigate the matter. On the very day she arrives, however, Miss Lipscumbe is found drowned in a pond in the convent grounds. Did she commit suicide from remorse? Was she sleepwalking? Or could she have been murdered?

I enjoyed this book very much. Dame Beatrice wasn’t as crocodilian as she usually is, the nuns & other inmates of the convent are an interesting bunch & there were plenty of red herrings to keep me guessing. I read a couple of Gladys Mitchells last year, The Saltmarsh Murders & When Last I Died, & I have a couple more on the tbr shelves for the next time I want to read a classic mystery.


  1. Thanks for a very interesting review.It's made me want to search for and read this book. I side stepped here from "A work in Progress" as you mentioned Erskine Childers Riddle of the Sands and I really enjoyed that book so came across to be nosy :0)
    I've only read one or two books by Gladys Mitchell and possibly one radio play.Your mention of convents made me think of "The Religious body" by Catherine Aird. Off now to look for Convent on Styx on the library catalogue.
    Thanks again and all the best for 2011

  2. Val, thanks for popping over to be nosy! I enjoy Catherine Aird's books, I think I've read them all. I like mysteries with a religious setting, convent, church etc. I hope you can get hold of a copy of Convent.