A review of The Devil’s Elbow by Gladys Mitchell – 230429
The Devil’s Elbow, originally published in 1951 and the twenty-fourth in her Mrs Bradley series, is one of the nearest to a conventional piece of crime fiction that you are likely to get from Gladys Mitchell. Even so, she does not make life easy for her readers, devising a murder mystery that at its height has thirty-one suspects with several of the principal characters bearing similar names. There are two Miss Tooleys, a Togg, a Miss Nordle, a Miss Durdle, not to mention a Pratt, a Parks, a Peel, and a Pew. The reader needs to keep their wits about them to remember who is who and not to mistake one for another. Added to that she intertwines another mystery, which takes place at the same time but has little to do with the murder.
One of the fascinating aspects of the book is that the story is told from two principal perspectives, that of George Jefferies, the courier of a coach tour taking in the sights of Scotland, George Jefferies aka Dan Chaucer, and that of Mrs Bradley in a series of interviews she conducts with the members of the coach party. Jefferies is a lively and entertaining narrator, and we get a series of memorable pen pictures of the members of the coach party and the principal moments on what was an eventful perspective. These are contained in letters he dutifully sends to his fiancée, Em, who just so happens to be working on a temporary basis as Mrs Bradley’s secretary.
When Miss Pratt’s body is found on a boat that Commander Parks had hired without permission from the tour operator, her head stoved in with a single blow from a rock, Jefferies implores Em to prevail upon Mrs Bradley to assist in unveiling the identity of the killer. Of course, Mrs Bradley, assisted by Inspector Gavin who just happening to be on holiday in the area adds some Scotland Yard heft to the labours of the local police Inspector, naturally named McTaveesh and with a comedy Scottish vernacular accent, needs no second invitation.
Her interviews with the members of the coach party add flesh to the skeleton of Jefferies’ singular narrative and we can view events from their perspective and see whether the courier’s description of events and characters coincide with the recollections of others. One of the coach party, Miss Durdle, has kept her own idiosyncratic diary. The two narrative perspectives work well, and Mitchell writes with a light touch, extracting much humour from the characters and situations that she portrays.
With a murder amongst the party and an unauthorised boat trip, it is no surprise that Jefferies’ services are no longer required, although he is handsomely paid off, and he is roped in by Mrs Bradley to track down a motor caravan that was seen suspiciously near the spot where Miss Pratt was murdered. This leads to an amusing chase around eastern Scotland, culminating in Jefferies commandeering a boat which is taking part in a smuggling racket being observed by the naval authorities. This side plot, highly entertaining and amusing, turns out to be just that, but for me it was the highlight of the book, Jefferies being one of Mitchell’s more colourful and well-developed characters.
As for the identity of the murderer, this is derived by a lengthy elimination of the suspects. Mrs Bradley is an eminent psychoanalyst and the motivation behind the murder is jealousy and the fevered imaginings of a frustrated mind. I was not convinced that the feelings unleashed by the claustrophobic atmosphere of an organised coach tour would result in murder most foul, so the denouement was a little disappointing in my view. Nevertheless, like a coach trip there was much to admire along the way, even if the destination did not meet my high expectations.
The eponymous Devil’s Elbow is a pass of the Cairnwell on the route between Glen Shee and Braemar, one that was dreaded and tested the mettle and metal of many a charabanc at the time.
This is one of Mitchell’s more accessible novels and I raced through it.