A review of Death at the Opera by Gladys Mitchell
Also known as Death in the Wet, this is fifth outing (out of sixty-six) for Mitchell’s amateur sleuth, Mrs Bradley. I have read enough of her works to realise that you never quite know what you are getting yourself into when you turn the first page. Some things stay the same; Mrs Bradley, a psychoanalyst by trade, will continue with her eccentric dress sense, her waspish interrogative style, and put everyone she meets on edge, the plot will be barmy, and the ending will be both surprising and leave some questions unanswered. Death at the Opera fits the bill and gives us more besides.
The novel is set in a school which is gearing up to put on a performance of The Mikado, the opera. Throughout the book we are told that Calma Ferris is an inoffensive teacher. However, she has the unhappy knack of upsetting some of her colleagues, particularly Miss Camden, by refusing to release her star netball player for a tilt at a trophy Camden had set her heart on winning, and Mr Smith, the art teacher, whose commissioned piece entitled Psyche she accidentally dropped and destroyed. Her biggest offence is against art itself.
Calma has funded the production of the Mikado and has been given the part of Katisha, putting Miss Camden’s nose out of joint. She makes a mess of the role at a rehearsal and when it comes to the performance itself, she cannot be found. Mrs Boyle, a former actress, steps into the breach. Ferris is found in dead, face down in a washbasin full of water with the downpipe bunged up with clay. At the inquest the verdict is suicide but the Headmaster, unconvinced that this is the case, calls in Mrs Bradley to investigate. She does so in her own inimitable fashion.
One of the book’s main strengths is Mitchell’s characterisations. The characters are memorable, distinctive, lively and believable. What also helps is that as a teacher, she understands the dynamics of the staffroom and the relationships between pupil and teacher and uses this knowledge to great effect. There is an undercurrent of mild satire running through the book.
As the investigations progress, it emerges that Miss Ferris has the dirt on several of her colleagues and senior pupils, giving each of them motivation and opportunity to have done away with the unfortunate woman. However, there are holes in the case against each of them. Then there is Ferris’ aunt and the mysterious Mr Helm, who may or may not have been the strange electrician seen behind the scenes when the lights had gone out.
Ferris’ demise moves off centre stage when Mrs Bradley’s interest is piqued by an epidemic of drownings. Each involved the victim being held down in a bath or in a pool in the case of poor Mrs Hampstead, whose demise frees up her husband to legitimise his affair with Mrs Doyle. Murderers, though, do not veer off from their chosen method of killing and there is a difference between a bath and a wash basin. This whole section, in which both Mrs Bradley and her nephew nearly meet their maker, is little more than an enormous red herring, which takes up much of the book.
The resolution, when it comes, is swift and to the point, the culprit revealed in the final few words of the book, ignoring Mrs Bradley’s case notes. The murderer is someone who has barely featured in the narrative, but there are enough clues sprinkled in the book to satisfy the armchair sleuth, even though why they murdered stretches credulity.
Mrs Bradley’s world has a strange moral compass. The implication is that she does nothing more than tell the murderer that she knows who they are, leaving the reader to wonder whether an eminent psychoanalyst would really let someone who killed for such a slight reason remain at liberty. Mrs Bradley does not let Mrs Boyle know the truth about what happened to Mrs Hampstead, leaving her to suspect her lover and thereby killing the affair stone dead and allowing someone with a part to play in arranging an assassination to continue to teach at the school. And, inevitably, it was Mrs Bradley’s barrister son who had got Helm off the hook first time around, leaving him to lure several more of his victims into a watery end.
Despite all that, as a piece of entertainment it is a first-rate book and is thoroughly recommended.