A review of Laurels are Poison by Gladys Mitchell
Gladys Mitchell’s books are never an easy read, as she twists and contorts the conventions of the detective novel genre and there is a distinct feeling of satisfaction to be gained when getting to the end and still having a vague appreciation of what has gone on and how it all hangs together. Mitchell is never one to hide the arcana of her knowledge and an appreciation of the Greek myth of Itylus helps immeasurably in this fourteenth book in her Mrs Bradley series, originally published in 1942. The culprit even quotes extensively from Algernon Swinburne’s poem of the same name in their confession.
The book also marks a distinct change in direction for her later books, whether for the better only time will tell as I plough through them in chronological order. Among the students at the teacher training college that is Carteret Training College are the self-styled Three Musketeers, Kitty Trevelyan, Alice Boorman, and Laura Menzies, the latter becoming Mrs Bradley’s amanuensis and ersatz-Dr Watson as the series progresses. It also introduces us to Deborah Cloud who goes on to marry Jonathan, one of Mrs Bradley’s nephews, by the end of the book.
Mrs Bradley has arrived at Carteret, ostensibly to take up the position of Warden of Athelstan, one of the houses at the college, but, in reality, to discover what had happened to the previous incumbent, Miss Murchan, who disappeared without trace at the climax of the summer ball. Deborah Cloud is her sub-Warden and is let into the secret while the Three Musketeers, who are all jolly hockey sticks and a bit famous-fiveish, are recruited for their inside knowledge.
Mitchell writes with great verve and panache, clearly revelling in the opportunity to describe life in a teacher training college, which, as an educationalist, was close to her heart. She regarded it as one of her best books and it is full of humour, action and meaningful observations, written in a style that is less convoluted than some of her earlier novels but never afraid to throw an obscure word at the reader to test the range of their vocabulary.
There are what are known as rags, exercises in high spirits by the women of the college and, from time to time, the men from the nearby college, some of which are exhibitions of youthful high spirits, but others which have a more sinister nature to them. There are mysterious sounds at night, jolly japes with a couple of anatomical skeletons, a sticky tar-like substance is spread over the floor of the basement, a pyre-like construction is made from commodes, a girl has her hair chopped off and Mrs Bradley is subjected to some physical danger. She is threatened with a gun, is stalked through the school, and has a brick thrown at her. These incidents pass in and out of the narrative, like pieces of surreal absurdism.
There is a body found floating in a nearby river, but it is not Miss Murchan. Instead, it is the cook, recently dismissed by Mrs Bradley, and as her corsets are found separately, it is suggested that it was murder and not suicide and that the foul deed was carried out elsewhere. Why would the cook be murdered? Perhaps she had some information that the murderer did not want shared.
As the narrative reaches its climax the all-important back story slowly emerges and we begin to understand the relationship between the improbably named Miss Cornflake and the missing Warden, what the cook knew, and why she was murdered. It involves a tragic accident, revenge, sibling jealousies, and knowing too much.
Of course, Mrs Bradley gets her man, although they escape the arms of justice by doing away with themselves, thus sparing the College the bad publicity the Principal was keen to avoid. It was an enjoyable romp and one of Mitchell’s best that I have read.