Tag Archives: Mrs Bradley

The Devil’s Elbow

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.

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.

Groaning Spinney

A review of Groaning Spinney by Gladys Mitchell – 221218

Also going by the title of Murder in the Snow, which the latest reprint uses, Groaning Spinney is the twenty-third in Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley series and was originally published in 1950. By her standards this is a conventional, relatively straightforward murder mystery which progresses in a linear and logical fashion. She resists the temptation to distort the conventions of the genre to near breaking point and to bury her reader in an avalanche of arcana.

Indeed, there is barely any detection, very few surprises and an obvious set of suspects, where the motivation is more the mystery than the whodunit. It is as if Mitchell has put her experimenting to one side and has concentrated on producing a “normal” novel, toning down the complexity of her plot in favour of developing a set of interesting characters and imagining how they would react to the situations they find themselves in.

Nonetheless, there is still a dark undertone to the book with a high body count, five humans in all and two dogs and two cats. The murder of Bill Fullalove is especially gruesome and sadistic. Of course, it would not be a Mitchell tale without an element of the supernatural, this time an old tale of a parson who was found dead, slumped over a gate near Groaning Spinney, having either been set upon or been roaring drunk. I like to think the latter. On Christmas Eve there is a report of a sighting of the ghost over the gate and later Bill Fullalove’s body is found in the same position.

The book is set around Christmas time, at least the opening chapters are. Mrs Bradley has chosen to spend the festive period with her nephew, Jonathan LeStrange, and his wife, Deborah, in their new house near Groaning Spinney. In a spirit of neighbourliness, Jonathan invites Tiny and Bill Fullalove to spend Christmas there and, to their dismay, they bring two unexpected guests, a naturalist and an archaeologist. Mrs Bradley, who murder most foul follows round, takes an instant dislike to them all and, unbeknown to Johnathan, Deborah has her own reasons for disliking Tiny.

As well as Bill, their housekeeper goes missing, presumed dead and probably murdered, the Fullalove’s dogs and cats disappear, save for Worry, and several of the worthies in the village receive anonymous letters. As Mrs Bradley digs into the mystery she discovers an insurance fraud, tangled marital relationships, and dishonour amongst thieves. She is certain she has got to the bottom of things by the three-quarter mark of the book but what she lacks is proof. Slowly but surely, she recovers the typewriter, unravels the fraud and the identity of the supposed beneficiaries, and sets her plan to bring everything to a head which they do in a dramatic and tragic denouement. Mrs Bradley evinces no remorse over the chain reaction she has set in motion.

There is a languid feel to the investigation which is stretched over some months, and this reflects itself in the narrative which lacks a bit of oomph until the end. The book seems overlong as much of the mystery has evaporated long before the reader reaches the final page. Unusually, I got the sense that Mitchell rather undercooked the supernatural element, which was acknowledged, formed a central part of Will’s murder, but was left hanging in the air.

Mitchell compensates for some of the plot’s deficiencies with her usual acerbic wit, and some fine descriptive writing, becoming almost Loracian in her appreciation of the terrain and its stark beauty. She also produces some fine characters, most notably Ed Brown whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the area’s flora becomes invaluable to all parties. There is also a Dickensian feel to the names she has bestowed on some of the protagonists, enhancing the sense of a place stuck in a time warp. Her chauffeur, George, appears from time to time in the story, but her secretary, Laura, only fleetingly.

It was an enjoyable read and certainly one I would recommend to someone looking to see what Mitchell was all about. Be warned, though, compared with her earlier novels, this is very much an outlier.

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.