A review of The Saltmarsh Murders by Gladys Mitchell
Gladys Mitchell is one of my finds of 2021. I have a penchant for slightly barmy, left-field comedic crime thrillers with a moral compass somewhat out of kilter and The Saltmarsh Murders, the fourth in Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley series, published in 1932, fits the bill perfectly. My hearty commendation comes with a health warning as there are some, by modern standards, gratuitous racist comments and terms used in the narrative, especially when discussing that rarity in books of this genre and time, an innocent man of African American origin.
Mitchell has chosen to use a narrator to tell the story through their own eyes, always a challenging strategy as most characters rarely are present at all the salient moments and often have to rely on third-hand information. Still, Wells is a good choice as he always seems to be in the right place at the right time in his role as Mrs Bradley’s Watson.
Saltmarsh is a typical sleepy, English country village where, overtly, nothing seems to happen. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and it is a seething pit of hostility, prejudice, and malice. Most of Mitchell’s characters are drawn with lashings of foibles and quirky habits. Some are quite mad and positively dangerous. Mitchell seems to enjoy herself populating her story with these characters and enjoys poking fun at the small-mindedness and insularity of village life. Even Mrs Bradley is not immune from the atmosphere of the village which seems to accentuate her own grotesqueness, her poor dress sense, and her blunt directness.
Much to the disgust of Mrs Coutts, the vicar’s wife, the young folk of Saltmarsh enjoy an active sex life, but there is an unwritten code that if one of the wenches of the village becomes pregnant, the father will take her hand in marriage. Her servant, Meg Tosstick, falls pregnant and she is dismissed from the Coutts’ service, finding refuge at the local pub under the wing of Mr and Mrs Lowry. The baby is born but neither the Lowrys nor Tosstick will let anyone see it. This sparks rumours around the village that it must bear a strong resemblance to its father – the vicar is under immediate suspicion and a lynch mob attack the vicarage and disrupt a service at the church – or that it is of mixed race.
Meg Tosstick is found murdered, strangled. The baby has disappeared. The obvious suspect for the murder is Meg’s boyfriend, who is arrested, tried, and found guilty, sentenced to hang. Around the same time, Cora, the flirty girlfriend of Edwy Burt, a translator and smuggler of a certain kind of continental novel, disappears. She too is murdered, strangled.
Mrs Bradley takes charge of sorting out what has been going. A psychoanalyst by trade and a keen observer of human nature, she recognises that madness is at work in the village. We are treated to a glorious romp including incest, illicit extramarital affairs, smuggling, secret tunnels, and much more before Mrs Bradley reveals to the massed ranks of the village precisely what happened.
There are too many holes in the story to make the plot satisfy the purist – what happened to the baby is never explained and it was not clear to me how Mrs Bradley knew about Burt’s predilection for a certain sort of novel – but it does not matter. This is a glorious comedic romp stocked with wonderful characters that are a joy to encounter. I could not put it down and when I reached the end, the final chapter contains Mrs Bradley’s notes, I was disappointed it had finished. It is far from perfect, but great fun.