ARTISTIC DIFFERENCE: What Makes Gladys Mitchell Special?

by Jason Half

I made the decision, very early into my comprehensive reading of Gladys Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley mysteries, to vary the diet. When I finish a Mitchell tale, I invariably pick up something by someone else--classic or contemporary, Golden Age detection or modern-day satire--as a way of cleansing the palette. This in medias flirtation with another author lets me try a book stylistically different from the one before while providing a good reason not to sprint through the Mitchell canon within a matter of months. (The strategy seems to work; as of this writing I have more than a dozen Mrs. Bradley titles yet to discover.)

And sometimes, when I read a murder mystery by another author, I wonder, Why don't I begin a tribute website for this person? And the answer to that question I find very intriguing, and just a bit elusive. The mystery writers who I consider deserving of representation all meet the same basic standards which appealed to me when I created The Stone House for Gladys Mitchell: they are moderately or highly prolific writers with at least one series detective character; they embrace and work in the Golden Age mystery template; reading copies of their books are hard to find (as contemporary reprints are uncommon) but not impossible (thank you, Internet); and their body of work has been unjustly, unfairly neglected due to the combination of passing time and changing tastes.

Of all the worthy writers who meet this criteria--including Anthony Berkeley, Nicholas Blake, and John Dickson Carr [see Footnote 1]--I came closest to giving E.R. Punshon, creator of the Bobby Owen and the Carter & Bell series, his moment in the cyberspace sun, designing a few Punshon pages for an introduction, biography, and bibliography. I quietly discarded these plans upon realizing I didn't have enough to say about his first three Owen books to form separate reviews, and considered lumping them together onto one page. Much as I like Punshon, my heart wasn't in it.

But why not? What makes Gladys Mitchell's books worthy of reading, critiquing, and rereading while another author's works are merely pleasant diversions? I was offered a hint of an answer when I read (interstitially) The Motor Rally Mystery (1933) by John Rhode. Here Rhode's detective, the brilliant, clinical Dr. Lancelot Priestley, spots murder behind an apparently accidental car smash. The puzzle-solving is brisk and businesslike and the supporting characters pop in and out of the story with the efficiency of expositional figures on a stage. While functional, no player's personality stands out, Dr. Priestley included, as memorable or alive. Possible motives for murder are routine here: greed or jealousy or revenge. And as a mystery book it's all very nice but not very good.

So we turn, as I did after The Motor Rally Mystery, to Gladys Mitchell. My choice was a virgin reading of 1943's The Worsted Viper. Here's an illuminating point: in the arena or pure puzzle plotting and challenge-to-the-reader fair play, Rhode has Mitchell beat. Most Golden Age craftsmen and -women are more skilled at setting up and staging an impossible-crime tableau. It is notable that I have never encountered a single classical locked room or death-by-novelty-object scenario in any of the Mrs. Bradley books. [FN 2] Gladys Mitchell seems not overly interested in these sensational gambits, and neither, it must be admitted, am I. There are a handful of Mitchell mysteries that are well-clued--The Saltmarsh Murders (1932) and Death at the Opera (1934) among them--but this author lacks sufficient showman's instinct to bet her books' graceful prose on a lone gimmick or twist. Such an absence of Gotcha! moments, I have no doubt, has contributed to her relative obscurity among mystery readers.

I receive the impression that tone, style, and setting are of primary importance in a Mitchell novel. And while the plot is usually elaborate and busy in a satisfying way, the story itself often takes a procedural, rather than clue-constructed, course. That is, incidents occur throughout the book which drive the detective down her path. I've never encountered a Mitchell novel where a single murder in the beginning chapters manages to propel Mrs. Bradley through the rest of the book. Never one for endless drawing-room suspect interviews, Miss Mitchell prefers to flesh out her characters with backstory, personal tics, physical actions, and mannerisms of speech that sometimes make them quite memorable. More on this in a moment.

This lack of crossword-calibre clueing and challenge-to-the-reader gauntlet throwing is enough to make many mystery readers abandon ship. And they have a point. These elements form a large part of the mystery genre's reason for being. But while Miss Mitchell's books do not rely on perfectly placed clues, neither do they feel as though they have all been struck from the same template. Very often a detective series may succumb to overfamiliar formula as the cases pile up and the author soldiers on. (Insert clue A into chapter B.) The Mrs. Bradley series, especially in its first two decades [FN 3], offers wonderful variety and rarely treads the same ground twice (literally, or at least literarily: the author uses all corners of England, Scotland, and Wales for her backdrops and occasionally ventures into Europe as well). I adore Miss Mitchell's willingness to mix it up a bit, in tone and prose and structure.

The results, varied as they may be, are grounded by their mystery form: The Saltmarsh Murders is a very successful, high-spirited comedy, with shades (and influence) of P.G. Wodehouse; The Rising of the Moon (1945) is a somber twilight tale of serial killing in a small village as seen through the eyes of a 13-year old boy; When Last I Died (1941) incorporates, in a manner reminiscent of Wilkie Collins, diary entries, court observations, and private letters to tell a story of ominous disappearances and malevolent ghosts. Even Mitchell's less successful books, such as the dream-like, war-torn Sunset Over Soho (1943) and the pagan, primal, but overly tangled The Devil at Saxon Wall (1935), make for fascinating reading despite their lapses in logical plotting. These are unique, diverse books, and the distinction in tone and subject matter from one to another is admirable and impressive.

Mitchell invests her singular stories with an assortment of characters ranging from comic and sympathetic to cypher-like and menacing. Personal favorites tend to be the forceful eccentrics who drive a few of the plotlines: the screeching, wheelchair-bound Great Aunt Puddequet of The Longer Bodies (1930), who pits her relations against each other in an Olympics game to determine an heir; the monomaniacal, quite-possibly-mad Sir Rudri Hopkinson of Come Away, Death (1937), whose obsession with the Greek myths (and insistence on realistic recreations) might get his travelling party killed. Part of the appeal lies in Gladys Mitchell's generous painting in of her characters' backgrounds and "off-time," i.e., incidental details that aren't strictly necessary to the mystery plot. [FN 4] We probably do not need to know the full text of the circus poster that so enthralls the young narrator of The Rising of the Moon (and yet it's the type of detail a 13-year old boy would drink in and memorize), and some might find it excessive to learn about each vacationing family who stumbles upon a dead body one fateful summer (in The Worsted Viper), as said families are obviously not suspects.

But such authorial flourish, from a writer so sure of herself and her characters, often lends Miss Mitchell's books a dimension and humor her contemporaries lack in theirs. No, Mitchell's plotting has none of Carr's locked-room ingenuity or Christie's least-likely-suspect dazzle, but neither do I find prose and characterization as rich and enjoyable from Mitchell's more recognized peers. Rhode's Motor Rally Mystery has efficient (unremarkable) detection at the expense of compelling characters and memorable plotting. Mitchell's The Worsted Viper has a sequence of events--bodies found, murderers trailed, Satanic ceremony broken up--in place of reader-friendly, detectable clues, and the story is rather sensational and contrived, but it breathes in a way that Rhode's effort never does. Mitchell's characters (excepting the murder victims) have life in them; they're colorful, they think independently and they ride a comparatively unpredictable storyline. Mrs. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley runs rings around the dyspeptic Dr. Priestley: She squeezes information from a gypsy by placing a voodoo hex upon her! She narrowly avoids a poison blow dart! She comandeers a Satanic service and invents her own incantations! Viper is just as much adventure thriller as mystery story, but once again, that's what I love about Gladys Mitchell, and that's what keeps me reading. I never know what to expect.

I submit, then, this postulation: to enjoy the detective fiction of Gladys Mitchell, the reader has to approach them less as traditional detective stories than as first-rate escapist fiction. Using the murder mystery frame as a springboard for her plots, Mitchell delivers a variety of tones and stories, the great majority of them creative, singular, and highly readable. I've found more clever mystery stories elsewhere, but I've rarely found richer, more vibrant ones. Gladys Mitchell is a fiction writer who happens to write murder mysteries, rather than the other way around.

Footnotes:

[1] If you ARE looking for a great website which collects information, reviews, and book lists of other deserving Golden Age mystery writers, look no further than Nicholas Fuller's website, The Grandest Game in the World. An address is listed on my Links page.

[2] In death-by-novelty-object, I refer to the old chestnuts: exploding lightbulb containing nerve gas, icicle stabbing, training a squirrel to murder, et cetera etc.

[3] It is worth noting that Gladys Mitchell's books published before 1950 are generally more varied and arguably more successful than her later books. Beginning in the 1950s, narrative style and plotlines level out, producing mysteries that are readable but often not noteworthy. There are some successful later books, but most of the author's very best can be found in the first two decades of her publishing career.

[4] Mitchell occasionally short-changes the villains of her books, however. A number of novels have an off-stage and indistinct murderer, and the unmasking and/or capture of such a vague criminal proves disappointing. Examples can be found--or avoided--in Adders on the Heath, A Javelin for Jonah, and Uncoffin'd Clay.