St Peter’s Finger

A review of St Peter’s Finger by Gladys Mitchell

There is a lot to admire about a crime novel by Gladys Mitchell. She is not afraid to challenge her reader and, unlike many of her contemporaries, is prepared to take her time in unfolding her tale. Her approach allows her to develop her characters, to build a sense of place and time, to explore the psychology and motivations of some of her suspects, and to write with warmth and no little humour. There is no straight forward ending with the culprit banged to rights, indeed it is difficult to determine whodunit until the very end. As with life, there is uncertainty, the balance of probabilities as opposed to no reasonable doubt, and a quirky moral compass that see justice of a sort delivered but without the rigour and finality of that demanded by the courts.

St Peter’s Finger, the ninth in Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley series, originally published in 1938, has all of this and more. Mrs Bradley, her go-to amateur sleuth, is a complex and endlessly fascinating character, with a quirky sense of dress, saurian appearance, and an acerbic tongue. Behind her eccentric exterior there is a sharp brain, honed by her experience as a psychoanalyst, and keen observational and analytical powers. We have the opportunity to follow her throughout the book as she tries to unravel the goings-on at a school attached to the convent of St Peter in Perpetuity, at the behest of her son, the eminent barrister, Sir Ferdinand Lestrange.   

The tale begins with what might seem to be a rerun of Mitchell’s first Mrs Bradley novel, Speedy Death, a body found lying in a bathtub. The unfortunate victim is Ursula Doyle, an orphan pupil of the convent school. The circumstances of her death are perplexing; she died of carbon monoxide poisoning, but the bath was full, and the taps turned off, the window open, there was no fault with the gas supply, and she was in a bathroom reserved for guests from which pupils were banned and as a meek, rule-abiding pupil she was last person anyone would have thought of breaking the rules.

The coroner ruled it was suicide, the nuns an accident, and Mrs Bradley is increasingly convinced that it was murder. To add spice to the story Ursula was an heiress to a fortune and her two relatives next in line are both at the school. Was the murder an attempt by Mrs Maslin to accelerate her daughter Mary’s prospects of inheriting and, if so, was the other relative, Ulrica, in mortal danger?      Amongst the staff is a PE teacher who was sacked from her previous post for stealing paintings and a woman who killed her husband, although, thanks to Lestrange, she was acquitted of the charge.

There is a bewildering list of characters – Mitchell spends time developing their characters and quirks to the point that we feel we know them – and much of Mrs Bradley’s efforts are focused on pinning down the exact movements of all involved around the time of Ursula’s death. There was a lot of toing and froing at the time and while alibi testing can be a dry subject, Mitchell manages to leaven it all with humour and a characteristic light touch. Further complexity is thrown into the plot when Mrs Bradley suspects there is a plan to relieve the convent of its treasures. And what light will a mouse throw on matters?

The story has a dramatic ending with Mrs Bradley, amongst other and some of the children, trapped in a blazing building. Mrs Bradley’s chauffeur, Palmer, comes into his own here and he has a much more prominent role in the story than in others I have read. I shall look forward to seeing how Mitchell develops his character, if at all. Loose ends, after a fashion, are tied up in a concluding chapter set a little while after the events of the tale.

I enjoyed the book and it kept me guessing until the end. Mitchell is not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you fancy something out of the norm of Golden Age detective fiction, this is as good a place to start as any.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.