THREE QUICK AND FIVE DEAD (1968)

1968 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1989 Severn House.


"We've never had a case like this, have we?" said Laura, when her husband had returned to London. "I mean, our murders usually come in single spies or, at the most, a twin-pack, but this time they've certainly come in battalions, haven't they?"

Laura Gavin's walking companion along a country road situated at the edge of the New Forest isn't her employer, Dame Beatrice Bradley, but a newly acquired Irish wolfhound named Fergus. The young dog belongs to Laura's son Hamish, who's away at school, so Fergus has been staying at the Stone House and has become especially devoted to Dame Beatrice. On the walk, Fergus behaves strangely, then bolts into the woods. An early morning search uncovers dog and something unexpected: the wolfhound is guarding the body of a young woman, Karen Schumann, who has been strangled, and pinned to her chest with a knitting-needle is a piece of paper reading: In Memoriam 325. With the investigation still ongoing, another woman's body is discovered in the woods, also strangled, another cryptic note attached (In Memoriam 380).

With Dame Beatrice's input, the police concentrate on three suspects: Edward James, a theology and divinity student engaged to the first victim; Mrs. Schumann, Karen's mother and, briefly, landlady to Maria Machrado, the second victim; and Otto Schumann, Karen's quick-tempered sailor brother and Maria's ex-boyfriend. When a third woman's body is discovered, her death occurring under similar circumstances, Scotland Yard's Inspector Maisry works to prevent another tragedy, but he is unable to disrupt the pattern: there is a fourth murder, then a fifth.

Dame Beatrice works with Gavin and Maisry to make sense of the facts. For one thing, each victim, while sometimes not a foreigner, had a different national association: Karen Schumann was German, Maria Machrado, Spanish; other victims were an Italian maid, a French-language schoolmistress, and an Irish nanny. Then there are the notes attached to the bodies, whose numbers may have a historical significance, either as a year date (a.d. 325?) or as day, month and year (3 February, 1905?). Dame Beatrice, who has deduced the murderer's identity but lacks proof, explains her theory to the police, and the group begins to strengthen its case. Ultimately, it is Dame B. and George who apprehend the killer, thanks to the old lady's forethought and her chauffeur's proven reliability in matters of life and death.


Some Dame B. trivia to be found here: cook Henri and housemaid Celestine's last name (Lemaitre); it is in this book that Laura learns her second child is on the way (Gavin, speaking to Laura of Hamish's only-child status: "It sometimes seems to me that we've rather put all our eggs into one basket. What do you think?" "Please yourself. But I don't admire your description of your child."); and Dame Beatrice, while perhaps not a dog lover, proves definitely attuned to the canine breed. The wolfhound Fergus unconditionally adores the detective, as does the tiny terrier Lindy Lou. Fergus likes nothing better than to rest his "unkempt head upon Dame Beatrice's bony knee." It seems fitting that dogs, like birds and hedgehogs, react instinctively to Mrs. Croc's presence; in her earlier appearances, she possesses a definite witch-like aspect, and an ability to charm and tame the wilder species is a natural extension of her strange personality.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's a great read, and plot limitations that would sink an average mystery writer--only three suspects, and the killer is revealed a little past the halfway point--are handled by Gladys Mitchell with grand style and great inspiration. As with many of her books, the plot is bizarre and fascinating. The story zips along with energy to spare, as each of the first five chapters yields a new murder. Perhaps the strongest element of all, Miss Mitchell offers a compelling psychological portrait of the book's serial murderer. The motive, from a "real world" standpoint, is irrational (one could argue that murder itself is irrational) but it's also chillingly believable. In Three Quick and Five Dead, I felt I understood why the killer killed--not exactly a Mitchell constant--and that comprehension, coupled with the eerie scenario of bodies being found in the woods not too far from the Stone House makes this a well-told, memorable and vivid tale.