A review of The Devil at Saxon Wall by Gladys Mitchell
I am working my way through Gladys Mitchell’s series of Mrs Bradley murder mystery stories and have now reached this, the sixth, originally published in 1935. What I have deduced so far is that with Mitchell’s fearsome, uncompromising, unconventional, saurian amateur sleuth and psychoanalyst, you are never quite sure what you are going to get, but that it will not be the run-of-the-mill who and whydunit that her contemporaries were writing at the time. This book is odd, at times unsettling, bewildering but with a bit of perseverance on the reader’s part becomes quite a satisfying read.
The story is set in Saxon Wall which is stocked with a set of rustic characters who would not be out of place in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm. The countryfolk are superstitious, verging on paganism, simple and their language coloured with biblical references. It is not the haven of tranquillity that author, Hannibal Jones, thought he was coming to for rest and recuperation after suffering from nervous exhaustion. A spell in the country was what his psychoanalyst, Mrs Bradley, of course, had ordered.
It is a long, dry summer and the village is suffering from a water shortage. The only functioning wells are at the vicarage and at Neot House. The vicar is using access to his water supply as leverage to get the unholy villagers to church, but they are resistant and organise mobs to attack him, the vicarage and the church. They seem to be possessed by and in awe of the the devil who is said to live on the nearby hill.
While all this is going on, there is a bigger mystery to be resolved at Neot House which was hit by tragedy nearly ten years earlier. Constance Middleton died shortly giving birth and then just a few days later her husband died on the operating theatre. The child was sent away to be looked after, but there were two other children born around the same time, one of whom died. Were the surviving children switched and who is the real heir to Neon House. Matters are further complicated when Middleton’s brother appears on the scene and when he too meets his maker, bludgeoned to death, Jones knows the ideal person to get to the bottom of what is going on in the benighted village, Mrs Bradley. And so, the woman arrives.
The language Mitchell chooses to put into the mouths of the villagers complicates matters as do various plot twists and turns, but when you boil the book down to its bare essentials, it is a story of hidden or mistaken identities, witchcraft and madness. The duo of Jones and Bradley soon discover that the deaths of the Middletons ten years earlier were not as they seemed and, indeed, the identity of one of the deceased was not who they seemed to be. Nor was the mysterious brother bludgeoned to death. And which of the two boys is the true heir to the estate? And is the vicar really as mad as a box of frogs?
Mrs Bradley eventually makes sense of it all in her inimitable style, even if the reader is left floundering to see the wood from the trees. The End notes are particularly helpful to clear up any points missed along the way.
What I admire about Mitchell is her willingness to mix things up and experiment with a genre that can be a little constricting and predictable, like listening to a piece of atonal jazz when you have been used to trad. It does not measure up to The Saltmarsh Murders but it is well worth the ride. Hang on to your hat, though.