FAULT IN THE STRUCTURE (1977)

1977 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1979 Magna Large Print.

 

It seemed to Lawrence, ne Swinburne, that the accident to his own father had been the most fortunate of occurences. Death, he realised, was, among other things, a solver of problems. But for his father's demise, and the manner of it, he would never have been taken up by Sir Anthony. He cultivated the old gentleman and had high hopes of becoming his heir.

 

Depending on how one looks at it, Mr. Theddeus E. Lawrence manages to incur either terrible misfortune or celebrated windfalls. Relatives and family members have a habit of dying, but Lawrence is often compensated for his loss. His father (who allowed his wife to christen their son Alfriston Calliope [A.C.] Swinburne) perished in a car crash while his son was at the wheel; a sympathetic school benefactor failed to get medical attention in time and died of an aneurysm; and now it appears that Mr. Lawrence's first wife has turned up, only to go missing again. When a body is discovered, though, it belongs to the man's second wife, a college secretary who is found buried on the school grounds, her throat cut.

Dame Beatrice first hears of the case from her son, Sir Ferdinand Lestrange, who is investigating an embezzlement charge against the busy Mr. Lawrence. Dame B. continues to watch events unfold, but prefers to remain in the background, believing that the police will have a difficult time proving its theory. Ultimately, Lawrence is jailed--for drunken driving and resisting arrest.

The years pass, and one night Dame Beatrice's secretary Laura Gavin attends a meeting of the local dramatic society. The question before the group: what to present at the Caxton festival, an affair celebrating printing-press innovator William Caxton. After much deliberation and theatrical argument, the society decides to mount a production of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. The rehearsal process is bumpy, but eventually the show gets pulled together. Dame Beatrice is interested to hear Laura's news that a headstrong society member is determined to recruit a reluctant villager, a young printer sharing the name of William Caxton, to take part in the pageant. Remembering her acquaintance with the man named T.E. Lawrence and A.C. Swinburne, Dame Beatrice decides to watch over the festival activities, which is just as well: during The Beggar's Opera's final performance, the actor playing Macheath is fatally strangled by (what should have been) a prop noose. Laura and Dame B. talk through the puzzle before them and reach a conclusion by assigning identities to the luckless roles of victim and murderer.


A very likeable tale, Fault in the Structure also rings a little hollow. Gladys Mitchell's writing output during her final two decades, in my opinion, levelled out into a consistent and relatively sedate narrative style, where the stories are evenly paced and quite stable. There is still a lot to recommend from the 1970s on; one finds a few excellent twilight novels (Late, Late in the Evening [1976]; Nest of Vipers [1979]; The Greenstone Griffins [1983]) and a sizeable number of solid efforts, Fault in the Structure among them.

Indeed, this book has some great qualities to recommend it. The prose is a pleasure, witty and often very funny; I laughed aloud several times during my reading. The narrative jumps are bold and keep the story moving. The first chapter, for example, chronicles the suspected murderer's childhood upbringing; the book's middle section concerns itself with a campus murder; the final chapters jump ahead two years to pick up the story of an ill-fated amateur theater performance. Unfortunately, characterization suffers a bit, with some supporting players drawn so broadly as to be practically interchangeable (I couldn't quite keep track of which jealous actress was which, as they were rather undistinguished). Also, the central figure of Mr. Lawrence isn't as memorable as he should have been, largely due to an absence of scenes where the reader has time to understand the man; he remains a bit of a cipher throughout the book.

Still and all, plotting, prose, style and scenario of Fault in the Structure remain inimitably those of Gladys Mitchell. The concept of interring a body within a landscaper's hole on school grounds is reused in No Winding-Sheet (1984); murder in a theater setting can be found in 1934's Death at the Opera and 1965's Pageant of Murder. As with Opera and The Mikado, it's helpful here to have a working knowledge of The Beggar's Opera (also known as The Threepenny Opera).