Tag Archives: Laurels are Poison

Death And The Maiden

A review of Death and the Maiden by Gladys Mitchell – 230301

Not all of Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley series are available in a format priced at a level to ensure that the kids’ inheritance is not seriously depleted. Perhaps it is a ruse by the publishers to ensure that the reader’s patience and sanity is not too sorely tested as Mitchell, to be charitable, can be a perplexing writer, one willing to bend the conventions of detective fiction to a point when they creak at the seams. Nevertheless, I am trying to read what are available in chronological order, but found to my horror a little while ago that I had overlooked her twentieth, originally published in 1947. Poor sleuthing on my part but the error has now been rectified.

In many ways Death and the Maiden epitomises Mitchell’s approach to crime fiction. There is no doubting that it is beautifully and elegantly written with no little wit, some memorable scenes and many a pithy sentence that stick long in the memory. It is an active book with Mrs Bradley and her accomplices – the book sees a reunion of the Three Musketeers, Laura, Kitty, and Alice, whom we met in Laurels are Poison – shuttling back and forth between London and Winchester and the south coast. And then there is the Naiad, reports of the sighting of whom brings the four suspects to Winchester in the first place.

The book is undoubtedly a love poem to the beautiful city of Winchester and the River Itchen, Mitchell’s descriptions especially of the water meadows hitting a level of lyricism that confirm her at her best as a fine, technical writer. They are a delight to read. However, she also imbues her books with a somewhat, at least by modern standards, a wonky moral compass. When this book is boiled down it is about the brutal and senseless murder of two youths, but the horror associated with the deaths seems undercooked, playing a distinctive second fiddle to the more labyrinthine enquiries into what was the grand plan behind deaths of two from the lower order begotten of feckless parents that were seen as little more than dress rehearsals for the real thing.

Avarice, sheer hatred, and an overpowering protectiveness are tried and tested motives for murder, but vanity, an unattractive quality for sure, or, at least, its pricking, is hard to imagine as something which would drive someone to commit murder most foul. The determination of one of the protagonists to pin the blame on one of the other suspects leads to the case against them being fatally undermined but justice of sorts is served offstage when the two are gripped in a fatal and titanic struggle. Among the clues are a pair of sandals, each found in separate locations, a Panama hat, a hole used by tramps, and a pair of gloves, while a large geranium plant leads to the clearing of the suspect whom the police have charged with the first boy’s murder.

The suspects are Edris Tidson, who has left Tenerife where he grew bananas so seriously financially embarrassed that he has to live off his cousin, Priscilla Carmody, but he has high hopes of coming into an inheritance, his wife, Crete, and to complete the foursome who come to stay in Winchester as Tidson hunts the Naiad, Miss Carmody’s sulky niece, Connie. Only one can have murdered the boys and whilst it is fairly obvious whodunnit, Mitchell does her best to hide the clues with a shoal of, given the book’s freshwater fishing leitmotif, red trout.

While the mystery itself might not live long in the memory, the episode of the four black eyes will. There is a dead dog, dunkings in the river, the redoubtable Laura, who snares a fiancé in the shape of Inspector Gavin, skinny dipping, secret passages and priest holes, a ghost dressed as a nun who squeaks, escapades on rooftops and much more. It is great fun and Mitchell is on form. For all its oddities and imperfections, it is almost the perfect Mitchell story.

Tom Brown’s Body

A review of Tom Brown’s Body by Gladys Mitchell

The lacunae in the readily available corpus of Gladys Mitchell’s work have meant that I have had to jump from the 19th in her Mrs Bradley series, Here Comes A Chopper, to the twenty-second, published in 1949, Tom Brown’s Body. As the title suggests, it is set in a public school, the fictional Spey School, although the murder victim is a teacher rather than a pupil.

This is one of Mitchell’s more accessible novels and is written with some verve, humour, sometimes biting satire, and, as usual, veers off into territory not normally travelled in the genre of detective fiction. Schools are not uncommon settings for fictional murders, but she adds some extra spice by exploring the world of witchcraft and the supernatural, not something one would immediately associate with the rarefied world of a minor public school.

Witchcraft is the pretext for Mrs Bradley’s presence in the first place, on the hunt for a book owned by her delightfully named ancestor, Mary Toadflax, who dabbled in spells and potions, a volume of which is in the possession of Spey’s local witch, Lecky Harries. While she is in the village, the body of a junior master of Spey School, Mr Conway, is found in the garden of another master. Conway had been hit over the head and then drowned. As there was no expanse of water nearby, the body had obviously been moved to the garden.

Conway is not a popular master either with the other masters or the boys. There is an element of casual racism and antisemitism running through the book. Conway is also a ladies’ man and has rented a room chez Harries for his romantic pursuits while another master, Kay, is a regular visitor there as he is pursuing an interest in witchcraft. Another master has spent all his spare time building a replica of a Roman Bath and it soon becomes apparent that this is where the teacher was drowned.  

Mrs Bradley is brought in to establish what really has gone. There are a couple of pupils who played truant, stealing a master’s bicycle to go to a dog track and getting lost, finding their way to Harries’ house and witnessing a quarrel which resulted in a window being broken. Another pupil is a strong swimmer. What is the significance of a decapitated cockerel? Another form of the supernatural, a Tibetan devil-mask, is worn by someone who pushes one of Conway’s lovers down some steps at the school play. Has the murderer struck again?

Mitchell cleverly weaves the strands of witchcraft, the supernatural and life at a public school into an entertaining, if somewhat implausible, tale, a mix of psychological insights, deduction, and mumbo-jumbo. The plot is not overly complicated, at least by Mitchell’s standards, and, frankly, the culprit and the motive are reasonably easy to spot, although the howdunit is ingenious and makes for a dramatic and amusing finale.

She has managed to capture life in a school well and her leading characters are finely drawn. Her style is not as obscure and convoluted as in some of her earlier works, but she cannot resist wearing her encyclopaedic knowledge of ancient and modern literature on her sleeve. It was nice to see Aeacus get a namecheck and Itylus, whose myth formed the basis of Laurels are Poison, another appearance.

This is one of her better novels and is highly recommended.

Here Comes A Chopper

A review of Here Comes A Chopper by Gladys Mitchell

For those readers who like to follow the development of an author and their characters by reading their works in chronological order, there are some frustratingly large lacunae in the readily available books of Gladys Mitchell. Here Comes A Chopper, the nineteenth in Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley series, originally published in 1946, is the next book after Laurels are Poison (the 14th) that I could find in e-book format. Reading Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley series is not for the faint hearted but for a writer who is supposed to be a doyenne among crime writers, this seems a lamentable set of circumstances.

This is one of Mitchell’s more readable and accessible books. It almost seems that its lightness of spirit is a direct response to the end of the Second World War. However, it would not be a Mrs Bradley story without a dash of the weird, in this case two headless corpses and a novel place to hide a head in, some psychology – after all, Mrs Bradley is both an amateur sleuth and an acclaimed psychoanalyst – some mythology, and a narrative full of quotations from obscure poets. As an aside, as someone who is now almost dependent upon search engines to look things up, I am constantly in awe at the depth and breadth of Mitchell’s knowledge.

The title of the book comes from a line in the nursery rhyme, Oranges and Lemons, but also, clearly, a reference to the severing of the victim’s head. In essence, though, this is a country house murder mystery, and, by Mitchell’s standards, a fairly conventional one at that. The book opens with a schoolmaster and poet, Roger Hoskyn, looking forward to meeting up with his friend, Bob Woodcote, and going for a ramble in the countryside. However, Bob has injured his ankle and his sister, Dorothy, meets up with Roger to give her brother’s excuses – no mobile phones in those days – and agrees to be Bob’s substitute.

They get lost and stumble across a country house where they stop to ask for directions. They are astonished to be invited in to dinner, as the master of the house, Mr Lingfield, has gone missing and the hostess will not entertain the prospect of sitting down to a table of thirteen. After leaving the house and enduring a train journey on a branch line, they are picked up by Lingfield’s chauffeur, Sims, to take them home, although home turns out to be Mr Lingfield’s mansion. One of the house guests, inevitably, is Mrs Bradley.

The following day Lingfield’s body is found, naked and decapitated, but is it Lingfield and what happened to him and who committed the crime? Where is the head? Mrs Bradley sets out to investigate. There are red herrings, scars, assaults on poor Roger, some archery, a closed set of suspects, some eccentric and others hiding their emotions and jealousies, and a bewildering array of clues and hints which eventually lead to the resolution of the mystery.

There is a distinctly heavy dose of romance running through the tale. Roger, as befits a young man who has been educated and works in an all-male environment, is hopeless with women and seems to fall head over heels with any woman he falls in love with, first Dorothy, then the book’s femme fatale, Claudia Denbies, to whom there is more than meets the eye, and then Dorothy once more. Mitchell is an acute observer of the behaviour of those who fall in love and the ups and downs of nascent relationships.

It is a book full of humour, especially over the identification of a body that is both headless and naked, sharp observations, and, with Mrs Bradley on top saurian form with a mischievous glint in her eye, it is one I would recommend to someone looking to discover what Gladys Mitchell is all about.

Laurels Are Poison

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.