When Last I Died

A review of When Last I Died by Gladys Mitchell

Thirteen, they say, is lucky for some, unlucky for others. As someone who has struggled with Gladys Mitchell, I found this, the thirteenth in her Mrs Bradley series, originally published in 1941, not only more accessible but also thoroughly enjoyable. Part of the reason for this is Mitchell has dropped some of her more annoying stylistic tics such as reminding the reader at every opportunity of the psychologist sleuth’s saurian characteristics and peppering her speech with child or dear child.

Mrs Bradley is ever-present in this story. Her pursuit for the truth that lies behind the strange tale of Bella Foxley is her particular bee in her bonnet and hers alone, which she pursues with her usual vigour. Bella Foxley was a cook at an institution for delinquent boys, two of whom vanished around six years before the start of the book. Their disappearance still worries the Director who consults Mrs Bradley about the case. He tells her that Bella left her post around that time to look after her sick aunt from whom she was due to receive a legacy and that the aunt had died in mysterious circumstances, choking on some grated carrot. There were suggestions that Bella was instrumental in her death.

Bella then lives with her cousin, Tom, who is interested in the paranormal, and his wife. Tom is unfortunate to have been pushed out of a window of the supposedly haunted house twice, the second defenestration proving fatal and Bella is put on trial for murder, although the jury acquitted her, partly because of the malicious attitude of Toms’ wife. A year later, Bella, living with her sister, Tessa, is found drowned in the local lake, apparently the strain of the recent events causing her to commit suicide.

Mitchell adopts an interesting narrative style, much of the early chapters consisting of a verbatim reproduction of Bella’s diary, which Mrs Bradley’s grandson found while looking for something to use for a school project scrapbook, and an extract from the prosecuting QC’s account of the trial in his published memoirs. Although they appear early on in the narrative, they give the reader some of the clues they need to understand what is going on, even if they do not realise it at the time, and the interrelationship between Bella, her sister, and cousin Tom and his wife. The missing boys are frequently referenced in her diary. It is a fascinating way to set up the story.

Mitchell is happy to investigate the more eccentric side of life and much of Mrs Bradley’s investigations centre around the haunted house and enters the world of seances, poltergeists and ghosts. This gives Mitchell a glorious opportunity to poke fun at the enthusiasts and practitioners of “the other world” who commercialise it for their own ends. There is, however, a more practical and, ultimately more sinister, explanation for the paranormal activities which leads to the unravelling of the mystery.

Mrs Bradley’s investigations and the direction of the plot makes a significant and somewhat surprising turn of direction as the sleuth realises that her initial theories about who was pulling the strings was wrong, that there were small discrepancies in the timing of events and a key piece of evidence from a source that was dismissed that were enough to point the finger of blame in an entirely different direction. With so few obvious suspects Mitchell does a fine job in maintaining the tension and the air of mystery until the final chapters.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and my faith in Mitchell is partly restored. She can be a frustratingly opaque writer who pushes the conventions of the genre to its limits, but here she has produced a winner.

Murder By Matchlight

A review of Murder by Matchlight by E C R Lorac

Published in 1945 and reissued as part of the excellent British Library Crime Classics series, this is Lorac’s twenty-sixth novel to feature Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald of the Yard and an excellent one it is too. Cleverly written, it keeps the suspense going until the end, the plot twists and turns, and although Lorac is careful to play fairly with her readers with the clues, the reader is never quite sure how it will end until the finale. Masterful stuff.

One of Lorac’s strengths is her sense of atmosphere and this book has it in spades. Anyone who has a romantic vision of wartime London should read this, just for the compelling descriptions of London during wartime, the darkness of the black out, the destruction of properties, the loss of human life, the impossibility of living a normal life, the constant fear that your home will be hit by a bomb and destroyed, the anxiety of where you would go if you lost your accommodation.

Cleverly, Lorac uses the blackness of the London streets in the set up of the murder. A match struck to light a cigarette illuminates the murderer standing behind, allowing Bruce Mallaig just a flicker of a glimpse of the culprit’s face before the victim is despatched. Mallaig reports the murder to the police, his story is collaborated by another witness who was standing underneath the bridge where the murder was committed, but are they telling the truth? Who was the victim and why was he using false identification? Why was a respected London physician walking his dog close to the murder site? Why were the murderer’s footsteps not heard by the witnesses?

Robert Macdonald has his hands full in investigating a case which might have been a political thriller – the victim had served with Sinn Fein – but it really is about a picaresque facet of London life. The victim is a wastrel, living off his wits, a spot of blackmail here, a bit of black market dealing there, and constantly borrowing money. He is looking after a flat in a block peopled with a motley and colourful cast of theatrics and looked after by a wonderfully comic landlady straight out of Dickens.

The plot takes another twist to reveal the motivation for the murder, one that involves an ill-advised marriage, bigamy, and a Peter Pan-like antiques expert. The motivation is perhaps the weakest part of the plot. The reader may well identify the murderer but precisely why the victim was killed is more difficult to deduce.

Macdonald comes as a warm, caring human being, determined to do his duty but in a way that shows empathy for those whom he encounters. He is full of compassion for the eccentrically colourful landlady, even arranging her a job after her block of flats was bombed out and working side by side with one of the potential culprits in clearing the bomb site, an episode that leads him to see another side of the suspect’s character. He uses a couple of reconstructions, one to confirm his theory about how the murderer got to the scene without being heard, and the other to smoke out the culprit.

An interesting sub-theme of the book is whether the quality of the victim should influence the degree to which the investigation is conducted. Macdonald is firmly of the opinion that the law is the law and no matter how deserving the victim’s end may be, it is society’s duty to pursue the culprit with full vigour. Any other approach leads to a form of Fascism, an argument that resonates today.

Lorac is a much and sadly underrated writer and deserves to find a new and modern audience.

The Origins Of The Race For Doggett’s Coat and Badge

With roads narrow, congested, and poorly maintained and London Bridge the only dry crossing over the Thames until well into the eighteenth century, the easiest way to travel around the capital was by water. Ferries ran at various points along the river, large enough to transport horses and wagons as well as pedestrians. Alternatively, four-passenger wherries could be summoned from the many stairs that led down to Thames. For those wishing to travel along rather than across the river, long ferries ran the length of the river from Chelsea in the west to Greenwich in the east.

Ferry franchises were lucrative and held by the Crown or aristocrats, who leased them out to a waterman. Being a waterman was a skilled occupation requiring a detailed knowledge of the tides and currents of the river as well as the ability to handle a heavy boat in all weathers. It was also extremely competitive, watermen congregating around the stairs, jostling for trade, crying “oars, oars, scull, oars, oars”.

John Stow’s A Survey of London (1596) gives an idea of the volume of river traffic and the numbers employed. “There pertaineth”, he wrote, “to the cities of London, Westminster, and borough of Southwark, above the number, as is supposed, of 2,000 wherries and other small boats, whereby 3,000 poor men, at the least, be set on work and maintained”. London’s population at the time was around 200,000.

The first attempts to impose some order on ferries were made in the 16th century with the passing of a statute in 1514 regulating fares and an Act of Parliament in 1555 establishing the Company of Watermen. A City Guild rather than a Livery Company, it introduced a one-year apprenticeship for passenger-carrying watermen plying their trade between Windsor and Gravesend.

The preamble to an Act of Parliament in 1603 openly criticised watermen stating that people travelling between Windsor and Gravesend “have been put to great hazard and danger and the loss of their lives and goods, and many times have perished and been drowned in the said River through the unskilfulness and want of knowledge or experience in the wherrymen and watermen”. Henceforth, watermen carrying passengers had to be at least eighteen years old and to have completed an apprenticeship lasting seven years. They were then entitled to become a freeman of the Company.

Dublin-born Thomas Doggett used his thespian talents to good effect, becoming “the leading low comedian of the London stage” and later an impresario, managing the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and the Haymarket Theatre. By the time he retired in 1713 he had amassed “a fortune sufficient for the rest of his life”.

A staunch Whig, a fervent supporter of the Hanoverian cause, and inspired, it is said, by an encounter with a newly qualified waterman who was the only one prepared to take him across the Thames on a foul night, Doggett placed a placard on London Bridge on July 31, 1715, the eve of the first anniversary of George I’s accession to the British throne. It read “there will be given by Mr Doggett an orange colour livery with a badge representing Liberty to be rowed for by six watermen that are out of their time within the year past. They are to row from London Bridge to Chelsea. It will be continued annually on the same day for ever”. The Brunswick Coat and Badge Wager, later known as the Race for Doggett’s Coat and Badge or the Wager, was born.

Formula Of The Week (2)

Having a child in the back of the car can be trying at the best of times, especially when they decide to throw a tantrum. Fortunately, help is at hand to help parents predict when and how to mitigate a fretful child.

According to research carried out by Dr James Hind of Nottingham Trent University, the danger point for a tantrum is seventy minutes into the journey. Providing the child with some form of entertainment (E) for, say half an hour, will delay the tantrum by fifteen minutes and a further fifteen minutes can be bought by providing them with food (F). However, having other youngsters in the car (S) reduces the tantrum-free window by ten minutes.

For the mathematically inclined, he has encapsulated it all into a nifty formula, T = 70 + 0.5E + 15F – 10S, which might be worth pinning to the dashboard. Otherwise, it is worth remembering that the tantrum-free duration of your journey is about as long as you get before having to recharge your electric car.

He also informs us that the average child will first pose the query “are we there yet?” 32 minutes into a journey and will ask the very pertinent question four times per journey.

What would we do without academics?