by Nicholas Fuller

Mrs. (later Dame) Beatrice Adela (her middle name given her by Helen Simpson) Lestrange Bradley, Gladys Mitchell’s psycho-analyst sleuth extraordinaire, is by no means a conventional detective. Decidedly unprepossessing to behold, gifted with an unconventional and unorthodox philosophy enabling her both to condone and to commit murder, fabulously wealthy, descended from a witch and most probably one herself, she stands as perhaps the most original sleuth ever to emerge from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, when eccentric genius detectives abounded.

First appearing in Speedy Death (1929), published a year before Miss Marple’s first novel-length appearance in The Murder at the Vicarage, Mrs. Bradley, as T.J. Binyon points out in his Murder Will Out: The Detective in Fiction [1], goes against the conventional rôle for a woman detective: neither young and pretty like Christie’s Tuppence Beresford nor elderly and demure like Miss Marple, Mrs. Bradley resembles nothing less than a pterodactyl or a serpent, as her first description shows:

Mrs. Bradley was dry without being shrivelled, and bird-like without being pretty. She reminded Alastair Bing, who was afraid of her, of the reconstruction of a pterodactyl he had once seen in a German museum. There was the same inhuman malignity in her expression as in that of the defunct bird, and, like it, she had a cynical smirk about her mouth even when her face was in repose. She possessed nasty, dry, claw-like hands, and her arms, yellow and curiously repulsive, suggested the plucked wings of a fowl…
Strange to say, her voice belied her appearance, for, instead of the birdlike twitter one might have expected to hear issuing from those beaked lips, her utterance was slow, mellifluous, and slightly drawled; unctuous, rich, and reminiscent of dark, smooth treacle.[2]

She is often described in reptilian terms: “a deadly serpent basking in the sun or of an alligator smiling gently while birds removed animal irritants from its armoured frame”[3]; or “a hag-like pterodactyl”[4]. Perhaps the most amusing description is to be found in Dead Men’s Morris (1936), where she has “the maternal anxiety of a boa-constrictor which watches its young attempting to devour their first donkey”! In later years, she is known as ‘Mrs. Crocodile’, a nickname given to her by her secretary Laura Menzies—although originally coined by the village lunatic Mrs. Gatty in The Saltmarsh Murders (1932).

As well as looking like nothing on earth, her actions and reactions are decidedly unusual: in The Longer Bodies (1930), she shows off her skill at darts and drops from windows to the street stories below; while in The Saltmarsh Murders (1932), she is marked as “a far better bridge player than either Burns or Sir William, and … an adept at pool and snooker. She was also the most brilliant darts player and knife thrower that I have ever seen. She was also a dead shot with an airgun, and annoyed Burns considerably by winning five pounds from him one miserably wet afternoon by knocking the tops off ten empty wine bottles with ten successive shots.” Furthermore, her reaction to being attacked by a would-be murderer is one of glee and cynical amusement; no frail and trembling Miss Marple she! Her dress sense is, to put it mildly, non-existent—mixtures of bright velvet, sulphur and orange; mixtures of sulphur, tartan and odd shades of blue. As she states on one occasion, she is a woman of the world “but not of the half-world”[5]. Her disregard of fashion indicates her contempt for fleeting ephemera: she is not guided by what other people do and think, but by her own principles. As well as wearing bizarre costumes, she also knits shapeless messes in odd shades of pink and grey--a fine contrast to Agatha Christie's Miss Marple or Patricia Wentworth's Maud Silver, both of whom knit woolly and fleecy things for their great-nephews and great-nieces.

Yet her mind is even more extraordinary than her physical abilities: she is also a positive genius, a decidedly unorthodox thinker with her own—convincing—morality, neatly contrasting with her physical skills: “with all her extraordinary pot-house accomplishments, she had an old-fashioned precision of speech and an unfamiliarity with Americanisms or modern slang”[6]. She is a very literate woman, her light reading consisting of modern poetry (on which she is able to lecture at the drop of a hat), or, while in Greece, history and mythology (which she spouts from the top of her head—no mean feat)—turning The Iliad to both detection and the prevention of human sacrifice! She views Dickens as sociologically significant, “proclaiming him to be a humanitarian of advanced views, great public spirit and considerable courage”, placing him with Mrs. Felicia Hemans, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dean Farrer, Alfred, Lord Tennyson in “a peculiar limbo of her own”[7]. She is also musically gifted, being able to play the cello at a moment’s notice—and successfully, too[8].

She is completely imperturbable, knowing “the worst aspects of the worst cities in Europe and the United States, and … acquainted with every form of human degradation and vice”[9], yet not turning a hair—admirable training for a woman whose first brush with crime concerns transvestism, lesbianism, and unrequited passion! As she states in a later novel[10], the only thing she does not know is “exactly what went on in the Cities of the Plain… Even allowing for all the sources and idiosyncrasies of human behaviour which modern psychology has laid bare, it is difficult to conceive of a state of things so far removed from normal conduct that the cities had to be destroyed in so uncompromising a fashion. One thinks of post-1918 Hamburg; one thinks of the port of Suez; one thinks unutterable thoughts; and, after that, imagination boggles, as the master of the comic novel has said.” She goes against conventional morality wherever possible—but always in a positive way, because her view of morality has been carefully thought through and carefully structured, so that she is true to herself in all things. She has never believed “that vile things affect the minds of any but the vile”, finding “evil and filth [to be] the most incomparably dull, boring, surfeiting things in the world”, and that the “little insidious vices, treachery, malice, envy, jealousy and greed, covetousness, slandering, sentimentality and self-deception … enslave mankind”, treating a pornography smuggler not with contempt or horror but with amusement[11].

In an age when detectives lamented over murder as the worst of sins, Mrs. Bradley is an interesting detective: one who detects and discovers the identity of the murderer—and yet understands both the psychological and the moral reasons behind murder, often condoning murder, and, on three occasions[12], committing or orchestrating the murder of the murderer herself. Or, rather, not the murder, the unofficial execution. She realises that justice “has the two faces of Janus, one moral, the other legal”, and that in many cases she “may need to subvert her course in one or other of these respects”[13].

To her, murder is neither a crime nor a sin, but “a general heading for a whole list of actions, most of which ought to be judged merely as misdemeanours. The second division ought to be the special preserve of murderers”[14]. She recognises that every single human being is a potential murderer, “some in deed and some in thought”, the only difference being that “some have the courage of their convictions” while “others have not”[15]. Due to her psychological training, she understands that “no murder has what the police would term an adequate motive”[16], the improbable motives making the books seem truer to life, rather than the reverse: we can accept that a victim is killed because she is too meek to play the part of a termagant in a school production, because, in real life, the famous poisoner Wainwright’s motive for killing one of his victims was that her ankles were too thick. Motives are oftentimes incomprehensible to the layman because murderers are themselves mad: as she points out, “lack of humour means lack of balance. Lack of balance implies mental instability. Mental instability is, logically, madness. All murders are committed by lunatics. I am referring to premeditated murders, of course”[17]. Murder has its roots in the psychology of both the murderer and the victim—in fact, “it’s the applied mathematics of morbid psychology”[18], a psychological anomaly that can be committed by anyone.

Murder, in Mrs. Bradley’s eyes, is not the worst of crimes. She places it “below rape, and above grand larceny” [19]—rape psychologically damages the victim—a crime with which the victim must live until their death, while murder is a crime committed in an instant. Besides rape, “few murders … (unless they are procured by the use of poison), compare for sheer wickedness and heartless exploitation with blackmail, gun-running and dope-peddling”[20]. To Mrs. Bradley, as to many of her colleagues—as the Times Literary Supplement pointed out in 1928, “writers and readers unite in accepting … the doom … appropriate for blackmailers, in the case of whom the convention is now established, in fiction at least, that killing is no murder”—the real crime is blackmail, for where “the majority of murders do at least take place quickly, …the blackmailer is a slow torturer… Murder is a human crime and a dreadful one, but torture is the work of devils”[21].

Mrs. Bradley is, above all, a modern thinker: part of the pleasure of reading Mitchell is to hear Mrs. Bradley’s arguments—arguments which, although controversial and unorthodox, are compelling when looked at in detail. Although Mrs. Bradley once remarked that “women are poor debaters (with notable exceptions, of course) and often find it impossible to make their reactions the subject of a logical argument…none the less, they always have “something to go on,” as the saying is. Their perceptive powers are often livelier than those of men, who are apt to be ponderous and slow-witted in the question of human relations, and therefore women arrive at the truth with what is, to men, unfair leaps in the dark over logical fences and obstacles”[22], Mrs. Bradley’s arguments—be they on capital punishment, lunatics, or feminism, are logical and convincing.

She is “not a vindictive woman, and … [doesn’t] believe in hanging”[23], feeling it to be a “travesty of justice”[24]. In her opinion, hanging is a protracted form of mental torture because of the “dreadful period of waiting for the execution morning that obtains under our present inhuman and disgraceful system”[25]—it is far better, Mrs. Bradley feels, that the murderer be dispatched by poison immediately following the verdict, so that death is not “a penalty … [but] a release”.

The same principle, she feels, should also be applied to madmen: rather than Broadmoor, “a waste of public money … a painless death would be far the better method.” Asylums and reformatories are due more to moral cowardice than to any deep-rooted form of altruism: “we must always have the moral courage to release from life those who are not fitted to bear life’s burdens. Social morality, consisting, as it so largely does, in refraining from action, is to some minds an unachievable ideal, and to others simply nonsense.”[26] To minimise the number of madmen and murderers in the country, she advocates the sterilisation of the incurably mad[27]. While it is possible to agree with the swift death penalty, particularly since life imprisonment nowadays means less than a score of years, the sterilisation of the mad has, since the Third Reich, fallen out of favour.

An additional pleasure is Mrs. Bradley’s supreme cynicism, as expressed in her belief that “lots of theories are preferable to facts—notably that the human race has progressed since Neolithic times and that England is a Christian country”[28]. Like so many authors of the time (especially John Dickson Carr—c.f. The Sleeping Sphinx, 1947), she mistrusts the government, especially their surveys—“we will ask silly questions and demand unobtainable information. So many earnest persons do this nowadays, many of them sponsored by the government, that I don’t suppose we shall seem remarkable”[29]. Above all, she has, due to “a well-trained mind and a philosophical temperament … a good-humoured tolerance of most of her fellow creatures”[30], finding them more amusing in their murderous or deranged little foibles than threatening or offensive. However, even she has her dislikes—“resignation, whether Christian or otherwise, irritated her beyond measure. She repudiated the whole theory of martyrdom, regarding its victims as invariably obstinate and more often than not ill-informed. She considered that they were lacking in essential balance and judgement.” [31]

With such a character as this, it is not surprising that many have suspected her of being a witch, “a soulless bird of prey … the devil”[32], and a “screech owl, …[a] contour in the form of an ass, …Lamia, …Queen of Devils”[33] respectively. And, indeed, those people may have reason. Mary Toadflax, a remote ancestress of hers, was, at the age of nineteen, “tried in Scotland in the time of James I, but was let off by the favour of the presiding magistrate, whose paramour she was said to be when the devil was occupied elsewhere and her incubus not in the mood.” [34] For some reason, however, she was buried on the south coast[35]. She commits witchcraft on several occasions, most notably in Tom Brown’s Body (1949), where she conjures up a vision of the past in a witch’s crystal ball!

Although to some extent witchcraft is used to unravel that particular case, the means Mrs. Bradley uses to discover the identity of the murderer—as in all her cases—are largely psychological: “a great many actions carry the stamp of an individual personality, and, to the student of human nature, can provide a clue to identity in the same way as a writer’s style can speak a name to an informed and critical reader”[36].

SPOILER WARNING. SPOILER WARNING. SPOILER WARNING. Perhaps the best example is in The Longer Bodies (1930), where Mrs. Bradley reaches her solution from the clues of the exact score needed to win a prize at darts, and a hideous statue of a mermaid used to weigh down a body. The murder was committed simply and neatly—the minimum effort expended to require the optimum result: only one person’s performance at darts mirrored the act of murder. The mermaid statue was thrown into the water by someone who found the statue so offensive to their artistic sensibilities that it had to be disposed of—the only suspect with artistic leanings was the sister of the man who achieved the score at darts, and, therefore, his accomplice. SPOILER WARNING ENDS. SPOILER WARNING ENDS.

Word association, people’s names, jokes and puns, literary allusion, lies and omissions: all are also clues to the identity of the murderer. Mrs. Bradley does not interest herself in the “necessary but … boring sequels of inquests, medical reports, routine police enquiries, and the like”—instead, she finds her clues in “various puzzling points which the police … have overlooked”[37]. Although she always works with the police—except when working against them, as in Speedy Death (1929)—the police information is not always shared with the reader, as in The Rising of the Moon (1945), seen from the viewpoint of two small boys, making for very perplexing and disjointed reading. Mitchell, however, nearly always plays fair, even when—as happens in several of the post-1954 novels—the murderer’s identity seems arbitrary. At her best—i.e., in nearly all stories up to and including the 1953 offering Merlin’s Furlong—Mrs. Bradley is a first-class detective, one who ranks with the best of them, outdoing Dr. Fell in oracular remarks, outdoing Sherlock Holmes in eccentricity, outdoing Professor Fen in literary knowledge, outdoing Nigel Strangeways in knowledge of humanity, and outdoing Father Brown in philosophy.


Mrs. Bradley (maiden name unknown) herself was born in Yorkshire[38], of English stock, with “only a drop” of Highland blood[39]. The year of birth is unknown, although, as she was fifty-seven on her first appearance in 1929, and went to school in the 1870s, we must assume that she was born in the late 1850s—early 1860s, and so, presumably, on her last appearance in 1984, is at least 130. She was brought up “so far as religious matters were concerned, by the Church of England”[40].

She attended a small private school sometime in the early 1870s[41], whose Old School Tie was “a blasphemous combination of gold, silver and purple”; a school friend “chiefly remember[ed her] in the gym and at cricket, and being so jolly good at maths, and English, and music, and playing up Miss Poppleweather”[42]. On one occasion, however, she stated that she did not go to school and was taught by her father, learning “to read … Lewis Carroll, and the Bible, and the Swiss Family Robinson, …and not to lose our tempers when we argued”[43]. This is, however, most certainly erroneous, and, from the passage, seems to be intended more as an homage to Lewis Carroll than anything else. Be that as it may, however, Mrs. Bradley had a very successful academic career, being “holder of all the doctorates I've ever heard of except that of Doctor of Divinity”[44], including an honorary degree from Oxford[45].

She wrote several learned theses, which appealed to both layman and student alike: these include A Small Handbook of Psycho-Analysis, “half price to officials, post free … signed copies one guinea extra”[46]; “her famous popular book on hereditary tendencies towards crime”, which she wrote during her “second brief widowhood” to finance the training of her second son[47]; Psychology of the Re-Orientation of Paranoiacs[48]; and Psychoneurosis in the History of the 16th Century[49]. She has also gone on several lecture tours, including America (where she “acted as assistant to a distinguished alienist in order to have an opportunity of treating some of his cases psycho-analytically”[50] and Oxford. Like John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell, she taught children [51]. Among other organisations, she is a member of the Detection Club[52] (Mitchell joined in 1933, with four books to her credit); and the Psycho-Antiquarian Society, for which she wrote “on the probable neuroses of St. Simon Stylites, an unprofitable and idiotic task which gave her considerable enjoyment, for contemplation of the extraordinary and complicated psychological make-up of the more anti-social of the saints had always been to her a most fascinating way of wasting time.” [53] Many of her books were published in paperback by Penguin[54].

She was married three times (although the earlier books say only twice)—“a woman who marries three times is almost bound to be either super-normal, abnormal, or sub-normal”[55]. One honeymoon was spent in the south of France “in the days when she was young and had been in love”[56], and another at Amalfi[57].

By her first husband, an unscrupulous man of French and Spanish descent[58] “who cornered wheat on Wall St. and then slipped up and all the wheat fell on him”[59], she had Ferdinand Lestrange, born on her eighteenth birthday. He studied at Oxford from 1908 to 1911, was called to the bar in 1914, fought in the Great War from 1914 to 1917, but was invalided out in June, 1917. [60] He is knighted by the time of The Saltmarsh Murders (1932), and, like his distinguished mother, wrote—on forensic medicine, as “he knows what doctors have to know about the law” [61] and was married twice: in St. Peter’s Finger (1938), he is married to Juliet; in When Last I Died (1941), he is married to Caroline—and has a son, Derek, aged seven. In a later book, he has a daughter, Sally [62]; although, on her first appearance, Sally is not Mrs. Bradley’s grand-daughter, but her great-niece[63]. These are but some of the many inconsistencies surrounding the Bradley / Lestrange clan. Mrs. Bradley once stated that Ferdinand was her only son[64], but she is later revealed to have had another son, by her second husband: “the apple of her eye”, an authority on tropical diseases, living in India[65]. In an even later book, she states that she has “other sons”[66]—at least three children. Although she originally only had two husbands, by the early 1940s[67], she has been married thrice.

As well as having two (or more) sons, Mrs. Bradley also had an unofficial daughter: Laura Catriona[68] Menzies, who replaced Mrs. Bradley’s earlier secretaries—Nancy[69] and Miss Cummings[70], and acted as her assistant in crime solving, and, in some cases—12 Horses and the Hangman’s Noose (1956), Skeleton Island (1967)—even taking over from her, much to the reader’s alarm and dismay.

Laura was of Scottish stock, as was her creator—Laura was “a direct descendant of Sir Robert de Mengues whose lands became a barony in 1487”[71]. Like Mrs. Bradley, Laura has a touch of the occult about her: a great grandmother was “admired for possessing the gift”[72], and, on a visit to Scotland late in her career, she was one of two people to have seen a wraith of evil in the vicinity of a stone circle[73].

Laura’s scholastic career was rather dubious: although she did the Matriculation examination, she was unable to complete the Higher Schools, having been superannuated for six weeks, “owing to a … misunderstanding with the headmistress”[74]. She did, however, study to become a teacher, training at Carteret College with Alice Boorman and Kitty Trevelyan, nicknamed “the Three Musketeers”—a particularly annoying and inept group in every book after their first appearance, Laurels are Poison (1942). She later met and became engaged[75] to one David (later Robert[76]) Gavin, a policeman of Mrs. Bradley’s acquaintance, who later rose to become Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard. Despite an engagement lasting nine books[77], Laura has two children by her husband: a son, Hamish[78], who becomes a teacher; and a daughter, Eiladh, who, in a journey from childhood to adulthood to rival that of Hercules, manages to grow from being a newborn baby[79] into an adult [80] in nine years.

In addition to her secretary, Mrs. Bradley’s second sidekick (although first chronologically) was George Cuddleup [81], her chauffeur, whose first appearance was in The Longer Bodies (1930), and who appeared in a minor rôle in nearly every one of her cases—an omni-present Bunter or Polton figure. An only child[82]—although the same book mentions “a sister who changed to Catholic”—he was educated at the Gallery St. Central School[83], following which he joined the army, having been a scout and a Rover—his sojourn in America[84] was most probably due to the army. Like his employer, he was a voracious reader, chiefly of history and biography, books of travel, and "with interest, pleasure, and profit,…such of [Mrs. Bradley’s] own work as has found its way into the public libraries”[85].

With Laura and George, and a constant staff of servants—Henri and Celestine the French servants, and, in later books[86], Zena the maid, while a Mrs. Ribbon, “always [at the Stone House] to keep the place aired”, is mentioned in one book[87]--Mrs. Bradley lived at the Stone House, Wandles Parva, Hampshire, located in the New Forest; the nearest market town being Bossbury[88], although Brockenhurst is also in the vicinity[89]. The Stone House is so named for the Druidic Stone of Sacrifice nearby, on which a particularly brutal murder was once committed, and which, according to the locals, has a bad name, so much so that Laura Menzies wonders whether it “isn't responsible for all the murders that follow us about”[90]. Mitchell uses Wandles Parva to highlight one of her concerns: the passing of rural England, replaced by industrialism[91]. The Manor House, once owned by Rupert Sethleigh, was “purchased by the local council and later commandeered by the Army”, later taken over by the council; the Stone became “a goal for sightseers, and a right of way had been made between the Manor park and the vicarage lane”[92].


[1] Oxford University Press, 1989.
[2] Speedy Death (1929).
[3] The Saltmarsh Murders (1932).
[4] St. Peter’s Finger (1938).
[5] Here Comes a Chopper (1946).
[6] The Saltmarsh Murders (1932).
[7] St. Peter’s Finger (1938).
[8] Here Comes a Chopper (1946).
[9] The Saltmarsh Murders (1932).
[10] Watson’s Choice (1955).
[11] The Saltmarsh Murders (1932).
[12] Speedy Death (1929); The Saltmarsh Murders (1932); The Devil at Saxon Wall (1935).
[13] Nest of Vipers (1979).
[14] The Saltmarsh Murders (1932).
[15] Speedy Death (1929).
[16] The Longer Bodies (1930).
[17] The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop (1929).
[18] Dead Men’s Morris (1936).
[19] Tom Brown’s Body (1949).
[20] Gory Dew (1970).
[21] The Echoing Strangers (1952).
[22] Merlin’s Furlong (1953).
[23] The Saltmarsh Murders (1932).
[24] Death and the Maiden (1947).
[25] The Saltmarsh Murders (1932).
[26] The Saltmarsh Murders (1932).
[27] When Last I Died (1941); The Echoing Strangers (1952).
[28] The Dancing Druids (1948).
[29] The Dancing Druids (1948).
[30] Groaning Spinney (1950).
[31] Come Away, Death (1937).
[32] The Longer Bodies (1930).
[33] Tom Brown’s Body (1949).
[34] Death and the Maiden (1947).
[35] “Daisy Bell” (1940).
[36] Twelve Horses and the Hangman’s Noose (1956).
[37] The Rising of the Moon (1945).
[38] The Saltmarsh Murders (1932).
[39] My Father Sleeps (1944).
[40] St. Peter’s Finger (1938).
[41] The Devil at Saxon Wall (1935).
[42] The Echoing Strangers (1952).
[43] St. Peter’s Finger (1938).
[44] The Greenstone Griffins (1983).
[45] The Longer Bodies (1930).
[46] Speedy Death (1929).
[47] St. Peter’s Finger (1938).
[48] My Father Sleeps (1944).
[49] Groaning Spinney (1950).
[50] Speedy Death (1929).
[51] Speedy Death (1929).
[52] Dead Men’s Morris (1936).
[53] Death and the Maiden (1947).
[54] Merlin’s Furlong (1953).
[55] Laurels are Poison (1942).
[56] Dead Men’s Morris (1936).
[57] Spotted Hemlock (1958).
[58] Tom Brown’s Body (1949).
[59] The Saltmarsh Murders (1932).
[60] Speedy Death (1929).
[61] Winking at the Brim (1974).
[62] Winking at the Brim (1974).
[63] Groaning Spinney (1950).
[64] The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop (1929).
[65] St. Peter’s Finger (1938).
[66] Tom Brown’s Body (1949).
[67] Laurels are Poison (1942).
[68] Dance to Your Daddy (1969).
[69] “The Case of the Hundred Cats” (1936).
[70] The Greenstone Griffins (1983).
[71] Winking at the Brim (1974).
[72] Twelve Horses and the Hangman’s Noose (1956).
[73] The Whispering Knights (1980).
[74] My Father Sleeps (1944).
[75] Death and the Maiden (1947).
[76] By the time of Spotted Hemlock (1958).
[77] Laura meets and is engaged to Gavin in Death and the Maiden (1947), decides on the date of marriage in Watson’s Choice (1955), and is Mrs. Gavin by the beginning of Twelve Horses and the Hangman’s Noose (1956). Of the books taking place between that period, one (Tom Brown’s Body, 1949) makes no mention of Laura; in two others (The Devil’s Elbow, 1951; The Echoing Strangers, 1952), Laura is on holiday in America; and in two others (Groaning Spinney, 1950; Merlin’s Furlong, 1953), Laura makes only a minor appearance.
[78] The Twenty-Third Man (1957).
[79] Dance to Your Daddy (1969).
[80] Wraiths and Changelings (1978).
[81] The Dancing Druids (1948).
[82] St. Peter’s Finger (1938).
[83] The Longer Bodies (1930).
[84] St. Peter’s Finger (1938).
[85] The Longer Bodies (1930).
[86] The Croaking Raven (1967).
[87] Here Comes a Chopper (1946).
[88] The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop (1929).
[89] Gory Dew (1970).
[90] The Whispering Knights (1980).
[91] This is best explored in her fiftieth novel, Late, Late in the Evening (1976).
[92] Here Comes a Chopper (1946).