“The Saltmarsh Murders” by Gladys Mitchell (1932)

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“There are all sorts of disadvantages in telling a story in the first person, especially a tale of murder.”

After reading a parody of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, it seemed fitting to dip back into a genuine one. I’ve long been ignorant of Gladys Mitchell, which seems odd given she was so prolific. Perhaps her profile is simply lower, or maybe even not all of her books are currently available. I can only make excuses for my ignorance. Nonetheless, I’m here now with the surprising The Saltmarsh Murders.

Noel Wells, the curate in the small village of Saltmarsh, sets about telling us the story of the murders that he got caught up in. He prefers to spend his time dancing with the vicar’s niece, but the peace is shattered when the unmarried housemaid is found to be pregnant, and the vicar’s shrewish, vindictive wife throws her out. A few days after the baby is born, the housemaid is strangled and the baby disappears, with no one ever having set eyes on it. Questions are raised – who had the motive and the opportunity? Why was the girl so secretive? And was there even a baby at all?

Noel calls on Mrs Bradley, an amateur detective and psychologist who happens to be staying in the village, to investigate the murder and together they find themselves dragged into Saltmarsh’s seedy underbelly as the story grows to incorporate a false letter, a kidnapped vicar, smuggling, the village lunatic, a missing corpse and an excavation of the local quarries. With Mrs Bradley convinced that the wrong man has been convicted, it is a race against time to find the true culprit and save an innocent man from death.

For much of the reading, I was worried I’d have to come here afterwards and give a negative review. The opening chapters were slow, somewhat repetitive and I kept losing track of who was who. It took a while to get to the actual murder, giving us some strange plots earlier on that quickly get discarded and prove not to be so important. I’d also made guesses on a number of plot points and was rapidly proven right on them all. However, when Mitchell finally reveals who the murderer was, the rug was pulled out from under me and I wasn’t anything like close. It’s a curiously satisfying solution.

The style of its time, with language and attitudes one would expect of the 1930s, so there are some terms that seem questionable to modern readers, but in many other respects there are some curiously modern topics involved, including pre-marital sex, incest, racial tension, and pornography. It was undoubtedly quite a shocking read at the time, and indeed, parts of it are still so today. Many other elements remain typical of books of the sort – small village, missing people, a secret passage and a country vicar.

I’d probably read Mitchell again, although I don’t necessarily see Mrs Bradley as one of fiction’s “most memorable personalities”, but I’m in no particular hurry.

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“The Midwich Cuckoos” by John Wyndham (1957)

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Not your average village.

Not your average village.

“One of the luckiest accidents in my wife’s life is that she happened to marry a man who was born on the 26th of September.”

Hallowe’en creeps ever nearer (as an aside, where the hell has this year gone?) and so feeling in an October-y mood, I settled on reading a book with an all-pervasive unease about it. If you’ve not heard of The Midwich Cuckoos, you’ve possibly heard of the film it spawned, Village of the Damned. Yes, we’re talking today about creepy children, a horror trope as old as the hills.

The tiny village of Midwich sits somewhere in the English countryside and has, for the last millennium, pretty much avoided scrutiny and escaped any drama or important historical happenstance. But all this changes when, on the night of the 26th of September one year, the phones die, the power goes out and everybody in the village falls asleep. When residents from nearby towns go to try and see what has happened, they do not return.

Police discover that there is a point some two miles from the village’s centre that, when crossed, causes anyone to pass out. Even the drivers of the vehicles sent in have fallen asleep and are now blocking up the roads. After a day of this, the strange force field vanishes and everyone in Midwich wakes up again with no memory of what they term the Dayout. Life continues on and the event begins to feel unreal. But then, a few weeks later, it turns out that every woman of child-bearing age in the village is pregnant.

When accusations of extramarital affairs and the like are unfounded, the villagers decide that this must be something to do with the Dayout, and await the births of their children to see how natural the infants are. All the children are born on the same day, and they are definitely not what anyone expected. All of them look practically identical, with blonde hair and gold eyes, and it quickly becomes apparent that they are aging far quicker than anyone could imagine. Not only that, they appear to share some kind of hive mind, and before long they have the entire village under their control.

First and foremost, this book is bloody creepy. The Children are emotionless, bland and terrifying, with a different moral code to humans (they are definitely not human) and the ability to make people do their bidding. This is particularly notable when they stop any villagers from leaving the area, but they are responsible for numerous deaths too. Being young, despite their appearance, they perhaps do not understand their power.

Just having to run an image search for this picture creeped me out.

Just having to run an image search for this picture creeped me out.

But on the other hand, it’s sometimes very clear that they know exactly what they’re doing. While the three main characters who are trying to work out what’s going on – Richard Gayford, the narrator and innocent bystander; Gordon Zellaby, a mentor to the Children; and Bernard Westcott, part of a Military Intelligence team – are fairly interchangeable and none of them are particularly great characters (Zellaby perhaps excepted, due to his amazingly long-winded manner of speaking), the magic here lies with the Children. Although they have few lines and do not really come into their own until over halfway through the book, they remain captivating.

It’s also interesting to read a book with a slightly more old-fashioned tone and set of ideals containing a science fiction plot. It’s sort of like if Agatha Christie had suddenly decided to introduce vampires into one of her murder mysteries. Good fun is to be had though with placing these events into our world. The characters are familiar with H G Wells’s Martians in The War of the Worlds, and so the idea that the children are aliens is not met with complete scorn.

Although occasionally over-wordy, and finishing off in a place which to me felt too soon, it’s a brilliant book. The fear comes in slowly at first, but then settles with a chill and frankly there is little I find scarier than the idea of a group of telekinetic hive-mind kids controlling me. I suppose it’s not really about children, though, it just once again brings into play humanity’s fear of being conquered by something more powerful than themselves.There’s a line in it about how the only reason we’ve taken over the world is because our brains are bigger and better than any other species, so when we’re faced with a race that beats us at that, we are in serious trouble.

If you like the hairs on the back of your neck to stand to attention, and enjoy the feeling of not knowing if you’re going to get a relaxed night sleep ever again, then give the book a go. It’s clever, and occasionally dryly funny, and above all probably still less creepy than the film, making it really the better option of the two. Then again, the book always is.