The following article first appeared in "Tangled Web" issue 1. It is posted here with the author's permission.
Bathtubs in the early novels of Gladys Mitchell
Thomas Hardy had his telescope, Evelyn Waugh his grand country houses, and Gladys Mitchell had her bathtubs. The recurring object. The motif, that all dedicated readers will recognise and exclaim knowingly, 'Ah, the bathtub again!'. And surely the bathtub has never been filled with such waters of menace as those in the early novels of Gladys Mitchell. The merest sound of running waters is a portent for violent death to follow.
(SPOILER WARNING for "SPEEDY DEATH" in next paragraph.)
Speedy Death, published in 1929 and Miss Mitchell's first book, was to establish a murder scenario that would occur intermittently throughout her prolific writing career. In Speedy Death it was the butler who was to realise that this was only the beginning when he announced, "Mr Mountjoy went to take his bath upwards of an hour ago, and has not re-appeared." How many more Mountjoys were there to be over the next five decades of writing ? Speedy Death is the first introduction to Miss Mitchell's eccentric sleuth Mrs Adela Lestrange Bradley, Home Office psychologist, amateur criminologist, and in Speedy Death, murderer too. This second murder, by Mrs Bradley's own hand, is once again forecast by the butler - "What about Miss Eleanor ? She hasn't appeared yet, and - oh, sir, I do hope there's nothing wrong.". But of course there is, and Miss Eleanor is discovered lying over the side of the bath, the chain of the wasteplug twisted cruely around her. Speedy Death was an excellent debut, providing genuine suspense, moments of terror in the descent to madness of Eleanor Bing, and set the tone for Mrs Bradley's distinguished career. The bathing motif fits rather neatly with Mrs Bradley's profession of psychiatrist. Long have people been sent to Bath to take of the mineral spa waters as a curative for madness.
(SPOILER WARNING ends.)
A young child is found dead in a bath at St Peter's Convent and Mrs Bradley finds herself once again embroiled in a mystery. Could Ursula Doyle have been overcome by the fumes from the geyser in the bathroom and accidentally drowned, or was there a more sinister agent at work ? In St Peter's Finger, Mrs Bradley identifies fact from fiction, suicide from murder. The bathroom in the covent is minutely described and conjures up an image of a most clinical and lonely place to die - "The little room was as bare and as clean as a cell. It was tiled to a height of four feet, and above the tiling the walls were covered with washable distemper."
By the time When Last I Died was published in 1941 the idea of a watery grave is so fixed in the reader's mind that every conceivable water receptacle takes on malignant connotations. Surely that large rain-water butt outside the back door of Bella Foxley's cottage can not be as innocent as it seems ? Particularly after the village idiot's cryptic assertion, "Pullen ar aid onder wartur". And then there is the well at the old, haunted house - not frogs alone lurk in those damp and depressing passages.
The most bizarre and sinister drownings though occur in Death at the Opera; bizarre in the case of Miss Calma Ferris, who mysteriously contrives to drown in a small wash hand basin; sinister in the form of Cutler, the scheming wife murderer. The healthy benefits of Cutler's sea water baths are outweighed by his murderous intent. Cutler's is a wonderful description of pure cold-bloodedness; the smiling chameleon who confidently sees himself beyond the reaches of the law; the single-minded killer, who methodically carries sea water up to his bungalow, to be heated for his victim's ablutions. Cutler, similiar to most of Miss Mitchell's bathtime assailants, uses the method of grabbing the bather's feet, holding them aloft and so forcing the victim's head under the water. But does this really work ? No experiments please - I am prepared to take Miss Mitchell's word for it.