Don’t ask me why, but I once had to type out the entire text of Hangman’s Curfew by Gladys Mitchell. All 77,000 words of it. It was a bit like having to do ‘lines’ at school. A punishment rather than a pleasure. There were so many potential pitfalls for the unwary copy editor: the endless literary allusions; the Scots dialect; the Border ballads. Oh, God, the interminable Border ballads. The Herculean task left such a scar on me that I have never once gone back to simply read the novel; had written it off as being preposterously plotted and idiomatically indigestible. Until now.
The first edition of Hangman’s Curfew published by Michael Joseph in 1941 is practically unobtainable. My volume of choice is the very fine Minnow Press reprint of 2010, which has the benefit of including a helpful map––pages 86 and 87––which is useful for making sense of some of the obscure references in the text. Nevertheless, it was with a sense of residual wariness that I approached the beast.
And perhaps it was because my expectations were set so low that I found myself pleasantly surprised. The opening of the novel, set in the low-lying hills where Northumberland meet Scotland, is every bit as good as any of the other Mrs Bradley books by Gladys Mitchell, and has the added benefit of an intriguing narrative device by way of introducing the main story. Admittedly, the middle of the book is still a bit of a minefield of confusing double identities and impossible clues––and those Border ballads; so help me, those Borders ballads!––but the finale is a very enjoyable cross-country caper rather reminiscent of Printer’s Error (Michael Joseph, 1939; Minnow Press, 2008) and it ties up all the––manifold––loose ends in a perfectly satisfactory manner. It has its moments of comedy: “With a shriek and a curse, he shot off the sill as though an elephant had charged him from behind.” (p. 104); and it has its moments of horror: “…the one with his split skull down upon the table, the other back in his chair, his head cleft almost to the chin.” (p. 168).
To my surprise, I came away having thoroughly enjoyed the entire romp, although I find myself in wholehearted agreement with the editor of the Minnow Press edition, who writes in his foreword to the book: “If I never read another Border ballad again, it will be so much the better!” (p. 5).
© Fergus Longfellow
Fergus Longfellow does a jig to celebrate reading Hangman’s Curfew.