Speedy Death

A review of Speedy Death by Gladys Mitchell

Gladys Mitchell, a new author to me, was a prolific author, best known for her amateur detective creation, Mrs Bradley, who appeared in 66 of her novels. Mitchell was an early member of the Detection Club and in the 1930s was considered to rank alongside Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie as the foremost of women crime writers. Sadly, after her death in 1983 most of her books fell out of print and it is only recently that they have begun to be reissued, this one by Vintage Books. Speedy Death, the first in the series to feature Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, was originally published in 1929.

It is an odd book, but hugely enjoyable, almost a social satire with a twist of melodrama thrown in. One of its principal oddities lies in Mitchell’s portrayal of her leading character, Mrs Bradley. She is portrayed as being unusual, both in looks and in dress, with bony hands and an unpleasant laugh. Possessing a sharp mind, as well as being an amateur sleuth she is a psychoanalyst, a calling that was at the time regarded as a bit outré. Mrs Bradley is far from a pleasant or appealing character when we meet her, but there are clearly no flies on her.

Mrs Bradley is also very much at the epicentre of the mystery, partly as someone who investigates and understands what has happened, partly as a guardian angel ensuring that someone’s safety is assured and partly as an avenger, ensuring that justice of a kind is served and that no more mischief can be done. She takes delight in discomfiting the police, led by the wonderfully named Inspector Boring, revels in being arrested and positively enjoys being on trial for her life on a charge of murder. Mrs Bradley is defended by her son who does it for the kudos that winning the case would bring rather than out of any filial affection. There is not much love nor many attractive characters in these pages.

The other major oddity lies in the identity of the first murder victim, Mountjoy, an intrepid explorer, who is found dead in a bath. It turns out that Everard Mountjoy, who was engaged to Eleanor Bing, is not a man as commonly supposed but a woman. It is another case of transvestism or, perhaps more accurately described in the modern argot, gender fluidity that springs up in the pages of Golden Age detective fiction. Nothing is made of it, other than a slight murmur of surprise and a feeling of embarrassment for Eleanor’s predicament, and it leads one to wonder whether it was not as uncommon in those days as one might have supposed.

There is always a danger of reading these novels with the benefit of hindsight or with a modern perspective. Attitudes were different in some ways, and it pays the reader to remember that. The sense of jeopardy for Mrs Bradley’s predicament is somewhat diminished for the modern reader as she appears in a further sixty-five novels, but this would not have been apparent to the contemporary reader.

The novel is conventional in its setting, a genteel country house party. As well as Mountjoy’s death, we have attempted attacks on Dorothy Bing and Pamela Storbin and the murder of Eleanor. For good measure the pater familias, Alastair Bing, skips off to Tibet, as you do, immediately after his elder daughter’s demise. Red herrings abound. There is a glorious episode when Carstairs and Bertie Philipson crouch down behind Pamela Storbin’s bed and watch as an attacker enters with knife in hand. Carstairs and Mrs Bradley take charge of investigations on behalf of the guests, although their motives are not aligned. Carstairs is no Einstein and runs the risk of being an accessory after the fact.

It is an entertaining and well-paced book. I found I raced through it and although it was fairly evident what was going on, it is always the sign of a good book.

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