6 February 2023


Jem Bloomfield. Witchcraft and Paganism in Midcentury Women’s Detective Fiction. Cambridge Elements, Magic. Cambridge University Press, 2022.

At last! Finally, the rarefied world of academe has deigned to turn its august attention to magic, as in this series of Cambridge Elements short books. The full scope and ambition of this series is summed up on the back cover of this contribution: ‘Elements in Magic aims to restore the study of magic, broadly defined, to a central place within culture.
One which it occupied for many centuries before being set apart by changing discourses of rationality and meaning. Understood as a continuing and potent force within global civilisation, magical thinking is imaginatively approached here as a cluster of activities, attitudes, beliefs and motivations ….’

So if books on magic are being produced by Cambridge, as here – and not before time, some of us are thinking – it’s edging into respectability, academically speaking at least. It will be interesting to see if this new rapprochement is allowed to flourish, or if, once again, it falls foul of the deadly materialist-rationalists’ contempt and censorship. But for now, let us rejoice in this slim little volume, which examines the attitudes to magic -specifically witchcraft – in the works of four mid-20th century female writers of murder mysteries: Gladys Mitchell, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham – and of course, Agatha Christie. (It’s also interesting that this new departure for academics should come safely after the likes of Christie have become acceptable reading on Eng Lang courses, now deemed your actual literature finally.)

Here we find out that the ‘witchy’ detective novel, as Bloomfield terms it, sets side by side the "conventions of Golden Age fiction with the images and enchantments of witchcraft and paganism to produce a hitherto unstudied mode of detective fiction in the mid-century". So two former pariahs of the academic world – detective fiction and witchcraft – are brought together in this one small book! In its way, then, it’s historic.

Bloomfield points out that detective fiction was more likely to be read more widely than say, the novels of Wicca pioneer Gerald Gardner or even Dennis Wheatley’s lurid vision of Satan in suburbia. Also the deceptively non-demanding nature of murder mysteries, when dealing with magic, permits the reader to indulge in the witchy world without ever taking a position of belief/non-belief. You tell yourself you’re just reading a novel, not overtly wallowing in witchcraft, although you might be doing just that as your mind is drawn further into the enchantments hinted at – if only sometimes to be dismissed – in these authors’ offerings.

The author also lays bare some intriguing background reading of the likes of Christie herself, which in turn either created or reflected the then current thinking on witchcraft.

Christie reveals a close knowledge of the theories of Margaret Murray, for example, whose theory of a lost age of fertility rites, goddesses and matriarchal societies, as in her The Witch Cult in Western Europe, which is still attractive to many pagan groups and covens today. In Christie’s day it was revolutionary, underpinning a new view of women in the ancient world as empowered and powerful. She also reveals a sound knowledge of J.G Frazer’s The Golden Bough, but a broader affinity with earlier witchy fiction, such as John Buchan’s Witch Wood.

All these influences swirled around Christie’s head, combining – together, of course, with her own remarkable creativity – to produce a series of stories with their roots, or apparently so, in witchcraft.

A little-known Miss Marple story – in fact, who knew? - from as back as 1928, entitled The Idol House of Astarte centres on a "man stricken to death by apparently no mortal agency", as told by a clergyman. The setting in an ancient grove in the English countryside, nevertheless known as ‘the Grove of Astarte’, where a group of Bright Young Things gather for a party and to enact – somewhat glibly – the Rites of Astarte. Then things get out of hand…

Although the actual murder is shown to have a prosaic enough explanation, Christie leaves us in no doubt that there was ‘an evil influence in that grove’. One feels that the author herself was a little under its spell. That was to change.

Another Christie novel with a witchy ambience is Murder Is Easy, which – as Bloomfield points out – to some extent echoes and develops themes in Buchan’s Witch Wood (1927), even to the extent of calling her village ‘Wychwood-under-Ashe’. (The ‘Ashe’ referencing the great goddess Ashtoreth.)

Here, exactly as in Buchan, we have a hero from the city who walks into an ancient pagan world in the deepest English countryside. The first time Luke Williams encounters Bridget Conway, for example, we read: "… that queer magic of hers held him. 'Bewitched, that’s what I am, bewitched,' he said to himself". There are also hedonist/pagans and a deeply unpleasant – and rather Oscar Wilde-like – character who is associated with black magic.

Although nowhere does Christie demand that we believe, Luke Williams is still held by that ‘queer magic’ at the end of the novel.

But of course it is The Pale Horse, with its voodoo-esque rituals and weird alleged technology that most people think of first when considering Christie’s witchy output. And some of us, it’s fair to say, while loving the characteristic ingenuity of the plot and its twists and turns, have perhaps become somewhat disappointed and frustrated when the whole thing is revealed to have a completely prosaic explanation.

The ‘supposed occult contract killing’ is, true, utterly ingenious and audacious. People wishing an inconvenient husband or relative - who obstinately refuses to die and leave them their money - out of the way, can consult an agency who direct them to three women who live in the deepest countryside in a converted inn called The Pale Horse. They claim to cause the death of these people through occult ritual only.

Christie devotes much of the book to the claims of these women and the strange atmosphere that surrounds them, yet relatively little to the "…relatively quick denouement of the 'solution”': they are simply a front for an inconspicuous man who introduces poisonous toxins into the victims’ houses via toiletry products."

So the black – or maybe dark grey – magic of the women is collapsed down into the suitcase of shampoo and face powder of a door-to-door salesman. Ingenious, yes, but some readers might feel distinctly short-changed by the sheer mundane bathos of it. Perhaps that’s the point.

There is, however, a major omission from this valuable little volume. While we read with fascination about the literary and magical influences on Christie, for example, we read nothing about the woman’s own background, which is surely relevant. For a start, she was a devout Christian, although her travels in the Middle East and work as an amateur archaeologist opened her up to more ancient and perhaps magical traditions. In those two influences can be seen the tussle between magic and rationality in her work. Or between the unconventional and the conventional.

But, Bloomfield points out, her attitude to such things changed over the course of her output: she was much more open to the reality of the witchy world at the beginning, leaving the reader still half-enchanted at the end of the book. By the time of The Pale Horse, however, all such enchantment had disappeared. But of course, one could be reading too much into that. After all, she was a mainstream bestseller keen to keep things that way and had no desire to alienate her adoring fan base (something else that has perhaps passed Bloomfield by). Potential readers of occulty stuff have always been marginal compared to potential audiences for Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. At best, one could use that terrible phrase of Christie – ‘she dabbled in the occult’, but with a knowing eye and perhaps a secret frisson. Her relationship with witchiness is complicated.

As stated above, this book is not just about Christie, although to modern readers she might well be the only name they recognise here.

For that reason, it is not my intention to dwell on them, but it is worth mentioning that, Bloomfield says, "The three [Margery] Allingham novels I discuss engage energetically with the ideas of both 'pagan' and continuity with the English past. They reproduce it, ironize it and critique it, but also use it to frame their sense of England as an enchanted place".

Allingham is not above weaving a slightly nonsensical plot around "a lost heir and ancestral chalice under threat from an international gang of crooks and a mysterious apparition in the woods…" It’s a world that resonates somewhat (sorry, Margery) with Dan Brown, but maintains its peculiar semi-enchanted Englishness. It is a world where the villagers cynically rip off tourists with their ancient ways, but at the same time those very ancient ways are still, to some extent, genuine.

Ngaio Marsh is totally sceptical towards witchcraft and the occult, always reminding us of her disapproval. Her detective, Inspector Alleyn, remarks how "the practice and punishment attached to magic involved hardship, including starvation, fear, torture and burning, 'and without any first hand evidence of the smallest success’". This heavy-handed irony reinforces that running through Allingham’s book Death in Ecstasy, which deals with witchiness as a cover for the illegal and exploitative. As Bloomfield writes: ‘… the cultic practices may operate as a cover for base and comprehensible desires for power, sex and money, but they end up producing more terrible effects than those desires on their own’.

The last author examined in this book is Gladys Mitchell, whose Sapphic novels often rely on heightened emotional descriptions of feelings of enchantment – real women’s power. ‘Magical patterns’ swarm through the texts of say, Death and the Maiden and The Worsted Viper, which might thoroughly annoy those who are simply seeking a cracking detective story.

But for those who seek, or in any case, approve of it, this highly-charged level of emotional connection with ancient pagan atmospheres is conjured because: HHer main characters burrow, clamber, swim and dive below the surface of the landscape. The enchantment they find there parallels scenes from more explicitly fantastical contemporary novels such as the 'Piper at the Gates of Dawn' in The Wind in the Willows or Aslan’s How in Prince Caspian."

So, this is a book whose importance is way out of proportion with its mere 64 pages, with an enchantment and promise all of its own.
  • Lynn Picknett


VirtualJo said...

Excellent appraisal and critique of a book I might have missed otherwise. Although I'd expect nothing less from a writer with an ability to make deep research fascinating and vital to a body of work. Though I've read all of Christie's works, I wasn't familiar with Ngaio and barely recall reading Mitchell. I will remedy those omissions. Thank you.

Phil said...

Margery Allingham isn't forgotten - well, not in this house! She has a weakness for plots built on a single elaborate contrivance, and the ritualistic mystery surrounding the "Gyrth Chalice" in the first book you refer to - Look to the Lady - is one such. The magical and folk-horror elements are very strong, though; in fact, I remember being thoroughly spooked by it. I think by the end of the book everything that happens has a Perfectly Reasonable Explanation, but it's a close-run thing - it's certainly not boxed off as casually as Christie did in The Pale Horse (which I read as a kid; I still remember the immortal line, "So the Pale Horse is a stalking horse!").

robert said...

Super review and, you are right, much overlooked area