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.