Brazen Tongue

A review of Brazen Tongue by Gladys Mitchell

For those of us who like to follow an author’s series in chronological order, it is always a little disappointing when the next one is not available. The irony of Printer’s Error, Gladys Mitchell’s tenth in her Mrs Bradley series, originally published in 1939, not being available in anything like an affordable version – £1,183.99 anyone? – was not lost on me and so I had to move on to the eleventh, Brazen Tongue, published the following year. Bradley’s books are much more stand-alone affairs than those of other series authors with little in the way of on-going character development and so I consoled myself by thinking that I was not going to lose too much.

It was with some trepidation that I picked up this book. Mitchell’s stories are always challenging. Not for her is the well-worn path of murder, some sifting of the clues and the arrest of the butler. Her stories are denser, inverting and twisting the genre to suit her purpose, and leaving her readers with puzzles which at their best test their mettle and often result in a conclusion which was difficult to see coming. Mitchell described the book in an interview in 1976 as a “horrible book” along with Printer’s Error and it is easy to see why. Its ending is unsatisfying, leaving too much in the air, not providing the clarity that the reader expects from novels of this type. Of course, life is like that and, in reality, many a crime investigation results in an outcome based on probabilities rather than cast iron certainty.

The dissatisfaction I ultimately had with the book also stems from Mrs Bradley’s wonky moral compass. She is fearless and indefatigable in pursuit of the truth, but less so in seeing that justice prevails. It leads her to some odd moral and, dare I say it, class-based choices where it is all right to turn a blind eye to the activities of a young ambitious thing while seeing a working-class man pay for what he might have done.      

The book is set in the early days of the Second World War, the so-called phoney war, and for the modern reader there are many fascinating insights. Windows are blacked out, the Air Raid Patrol wardens and volunteers are working at a newly opened Report Centre, air raid sirens sound, and petrol is in short supply. George, Mrs Bradley’s man, has to resort to syphoning off petrol surreptitiously to have enough to drive her to an appointment and is aghast at the suggestion that he coasts down a hill with the engine off to conserve fuel. Mitchell feels it necessary when describing what is on the menu to remind her contemporary readers that rationing was not yet in force. The only jarring moments come in the portrayal of the Jewish couple, the Councillor a lazy stereotype and the wife given an unnecessary comic accent.

The little town of Willington is rocked by three murders, all committed within the space of twelve hours. The body of a woman, dressed in a night gown, is found in one of the newly erected water cisterns, a courting couple find the body of a prominent councillor, Smith, propped up in the doorway near the cinema, and a girl working at the report centre, Lillie Fletcher, who has gone out to meet her ominously named beau, Derek Coffin, is found with her head bashed in. The case of the drowned woman is particularly perplexing as she met her end in the nearby river rather than the cistern and no one seems to know who she is.

Is there something that connects all or some of these murders and, if so, what, and whodunit? These are the questions that occupy Mrs Bradley, ably assisted by Inspector Stallard, her niece, Sally, and a young reporter, Patricia Mort, seek to establish. The lives of all who seem to have knowledge of what was behind these murders, including Mrs Bradley herself, are in danger and there a number of failed attempts to silence them. By the end of her investigations, Mrs Bradley seems to have a convincing rationale for what had gone, but just as the reader sinks back into their chair, preening themselves on their perspicacity, Mitchell decides to throw all the pieces of the jigsaw into the air once more, see where they land, and make another pattern from them.

It is hard to give a convincing explanation why she does this. Was she dissatisfied with the initial conclusion or interested in seeing how many more or less convincing resolutions she could construct from a set of circumstances? I think that Mitchell is having enormous fun at the reader’s and the genre’s expense. There is a levity, a quiet whimsy, to her writing style and she has tremendous fun along the way, constructing characters whose names may be pieces of nominative determinism and, in the Rat and Cowcatcher, comes up with a boozer with which Brian Flynn would have been proud.

Brazen Tongue is not for the faint hearted nor the Mitchell neophyte, but if you are a fan of Mitchell’s work you will find much to enjoy in it.

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