THE SALTMARSH MURDERS (1932)

1932 Victor Gollancz. Reprinted 1933 Macrae-Smith (U.S.); 1984 Hogarth Press (hardcover and softcover); 1987 Chivers Press; 1987 Chatto & Windus (U.K.), 2009 Vintage UK.

 

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"Can't we frighten the truth out of him?"
Mrs. Bradley cackled.
"I think you would find that he was more afraid of the gallows than of your threats, child," she said. "Besides, we can't do very much without proof, and in any case, what I have just told you is not necessarily the truth, remember. It is merely a working hypothesis which covers all the facts that we know. Now when you've visited poor Bob, and have found out exactly what he did and where he went on August Bank Holiday, let me know. Persuade him that to tell the whole truth is his best plan. By the way, I have briefed Ferdinand Lestrange for the defence."
"What, Sir Ferdinand?" I gasped, thinking, of course, of the fees.
"Yes. My son by my first husband," said this remarkable woman. "A clever boy. Nearly as clever as his mother, and quite as unscrupulous as as his father, who cornered wheat on Wall Street and then slipped up and all the wheat fell on him!"
She screamed with Satanic mirth and poked me in the ribs until I fled the room.

The simple village of Saltmarsh, upon Mrs. Bradley's arrival, seems postively bustling with malicious deeds and mysterious activity. A villager is tossed into a crypt, the vicar is roughed up and chained to the quarry pound, strangers scramble atop bungalow roofs, and a housegirl named Meg Tosstick has given birth to an illegitimate child. This last incident would not be notable except for the fact that the girl had been employed at the vicarage and is now kept under veritable lock and guard by the landlord of the local inn. When Meg is found strangled shortly after the August Bank Holiday fete, Mrs. Bradley turns her psychoanalytic sights upon the many residents of Saltmarsh.

There is, of course, the vicar, the Rev. Bedivere Coutts, who is rumoured to have fathered the now-missing baby; the vicar's puritanical wife and the bumbling young curate (who narrates the tale) also fall under scrutiny. Then there is Mrs. Gatty, a merry old woman who lives in a former lunatic asylum and who likens all acquaintances to corresponding animals--Mrs. Bradley is naturally greeted as Mrs. Crocodile, curate Noel Wells as Mr. Goat, and an ill-tempered financier as Mr. Shark, with only the last person taking offense. The Lowrys run the Mornington Arms Inn where Meg had stayed, and husband and wife seem to be keeping a powerful secret. The strong, secretive Edwy David Burt lives in a solitary bungalow near the sea coast with his actress girlfriend and Negro manservant; this group may or may not be involved. And the prime suspect of the police is undoubtably one Bob Candy, a man with violence in his heritage and status as a slow-witted ex-boyfriend of the murdered girl.

Before long Cora, Burt's mistress, disappears from the village, and Mrs. Bradley grimly believes that she is not in a touring show but rather still in Saltmarsh, and quite sedentary to boot. An exhumation at Meg Tosstick's grave yields results unexpected by everyone but the thoughtful detective. Calling a meeting at the village hall, Mrs. Bradley begins to untangle the strange events; she realizes that, correctly played, justice will take the form of one final murder.


A delight from narrator Noel Wells' opening salvo ("There are all sorts of disadvantages in telling a story in the first person, especially a tale of murder") to Mrs. Bradley's final notebook entry, The Saltmarsh Murders has rightly earned a reputation as one of Gladys Mitchell's most successful novels. Indeed, all of the elements are uniformly strong here, with a complicated, twisty, and manageable mystery plotline, beautifully funny, rounded characterization, speedy but not hurried pacing, entertaining prose, and a reptilian detective in her most mythic glory. Nicholas Blake, author of the Nigel Strangeways mysteries, called The Saltmarsh Murders a "classic" upon its debut in 1932; Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan state in their introduction of the Hogarth reprint that this book, "like everything in the earliest group of detective novels by Gladys Mitchell, is an exceptionally stylish and high-spirited piece of work, with strong comic overtones." Please allow me to elaborate on these well-deserved accolades.

With The Saltmarsh Murders, Miss Mitchell seems to pay homage to her comic contemporary, the great P.G. Wodehouse. (The prolific author is referenced a couple times by Saltmarsh's curate Noel Wells, who under other circumstances would fit right in bunging breadrolls about at the Drones Club with Bertie Wooster and his ilk.) Yet the narration is not mere imitation of a comic novel; propelling the story is a very clever, very busy mystery plot, and one which succeeds nicely on the terms of the genre. A rereading had me admiring Mitchell's fair-play presentation; as Noel Wells is narrating the events after the fact, and thus knows his story's outcome, it becomes quite fascinating to observe his references to the guilty party. Wells--and Mitchell--never disguise or hide the murderer's presence throughout, but there are so many entertaining subplots here that one's attention is naturally diverted from one incident to another. There is no time to draw obvious conclusions, and busy misdirection is one of the most enjoyable garden paths up which a mystery reader can be led.

There is a grand playfulness here to be cherished. Characters are larger-than-life and beautifully drawn. The animal-associating Mrs. Gatty is an enjoyably mad creation, taking her place in the Mitchell canon alongside The Longer Bodies' screeching great-aunt Puddequet and Come Away, Death's this-side-of-sanity Sir Rudri Hopkinson. Curate Noel Wells makes a great foil to the eccentric Beatrice Bradley, and the old detective herself is in saurian top form here, poking her chronicler in the ribs with a bony yellow finger and cackling gleefully at private jokes. Poor Noel is deathly afraid of the disconcerting woman, but smartly sticks by her until the tale's end. The Saltmarsh Murders concludes with welcome pages from Mrs. Bradley's notebook, an all-too-rare summary device found attached to some of the best early books.

With this tale, Mitchell not only presents a fair-play murder mystery but manages to deliver a delicious satire on the (then contemporary, now Golden Age) genre: she sends up all those murder-at-the-vicarage/body-in-the-library conventions that are at once so cosy and so indomitably British by pushing mischievous plotting nearly over into the ridiculous. That the story succeeds on all points is cause for celebration. And what about the Wodehouse influence? It is found on practically every page of the curate's narrative, and Gladys Mitchell's talent for comedy comes through. In one instance, Noel Wells describes an ongoing murder trial as "a cricket match between counsel, with the judge as keeper of the score and the jury as umpires. And a frightfully confusing business the umpiring was, I should think." Another passage finds Noel referring to ingenue Daphne, "who, of course, is full of the milk of human kindness and drips it about rather after the manner of a punctured cocoanut." Our trusty but dotty narrator overuses the qualifier "of course," but I wouldn't want this very entertaining story entrusted to anyone else. One of Gladys Mitchell's very best, which is saying quite a bit, of course.