A review of The Longer Bodies by Gladys Mitchell
Published in 1930, this is the third in Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley series of novels and if you are looking for a straightforward murder mystery, you will be sorely disappointed. The plot, which could charitably be described as eccentric, veers on the side of bonkers without toppling over into full farce. Whilst it is meticulously plotted, the resolution of the initial murder and the motivation for crime is novel and difficult to second guess. It is as if Mitchell recognises the limitations of the conventions of fair play and takes great delight at poking fun at them and pushing them to, and beyond, their limits.
You need to approach this book less as a murder mystery and more as a comedic novel that gathers a motley collection of eccentric characters and entertains the reader with the resolution of an intriguing puzzle. What stands out is Mitchell’s profound sense of character and her ability to draw a picture of each of her main characters with a few, well chosen phrases. There are a lot of characters, but Mitchell’s skill is to make each one memorable and the reader can immediately recall where they fit in the jigsaw.
The book’s most memorable character is the ninety-year-old cantankerous Great Aunt Matilda Puddequet, whose eccentric idea, after watching England’s demise in an athletics competition, is to construct an athletics stadium at her home and challenge her grandnephews to compete in a mini-Olympics, the one to impress her most with their sporting prowess scooping her considerable inheritance. The families with some reluctance accept the challenge and go down to her country pile to train, under the watchful eye of a professional trainer.
Having served its purpose to get all the characters in one place at the same time, the athletics contest rather drops off the radar screen to be replaced by some rum goings on including the theft of rabbits, blood-tipped javelins, bath chairs whizzing around the grounds at the dead of night, a missing piece of sculpture, unexpected visitors in bedrooms and on staircases and much more.
Of course, the whole story is spiced up with a couple of murders, the first of a ne’er do well villager whose body ends up in the house’s lake and then of the self-confessed family joker and Puddequet’s grandson, Timon Anthony. Are the deaths connected and who is responsible?
It falls upon Inspector Bloxham to make sense of it all and spends a lot of time establishing and testing the alibis of all and sundry. The pace of the book does drop at this point and I could not help but think that Mitchell could have reduced the number of characters and suspects or truncated this section. The cavalry does arrive, though, to assist both Bloxham and the reader midway through the book in the form of the saurian-like and famous psychoanalyst, Mrs Beatrice Bradley.
Bradley’s method is to get under the skin and understand the possible suspects, to point interesting facts out and to suggest at further areas of enquiry rather than take over the investigation directly. However, she is always in the background observing and putting the pieces of the complex jigsaw together. The denouement is a little underwhelming and comes in the form of a written confession which may not be all that it seems.
Whatever I thought of the book as a murder mystery, it was a highly entertaining read with a rich vein of humour running through it and a gallery of entertaining characters. Mitchell takes a swipe at the mores of the time and the suspicions that foreigners per se can be up to no good. What wins the gold medal in this book, though, is her characterisation of the Great Aunt, waspish, eccentric, playful and always ready to offer her advice freely if not her money.