I’m afraid that today’s post about Gladys Mitchell (1901-1983) is going to be another digression from my mammoth Landing Book Shelves task. It is I admit a direct result of wandering into a charity shop for a casual browse. I know that I should avoid these temptations, but it truly is nigh on impossible to pass up the chance to poke around on a bookshelf. I had just popped into Oxfam to scan the paperbacks on my way home from shopping and, lo and behold, a crime novel caught my eye almost straightaway. My searching gaze lighted on The Longer Bodies, one of Gladys Mitchell’s early crime novels. Victor Gollancz originally published the novel in 1930 and it has been through several reprints from different publishers over the years. The Longer Bodies (2014) is one of a recent series of Vintage reprints and the stylish theme to the jacket seems entirely appropriate to their glittering heyday.
After enjoying the twists and turns of the plot in The Longer Bodies, I am baffled as to why it has taken me until now to get around to reading Gladys Mitchell. I had heard of her before, in connection with other ‘Golden Age’ women crime writers such as Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie, but serendipity has never thrust one of Mitchell’s books into my hands until now. It won’t be plot spoiling to mention that the title refers to bodies located in the village of Longer, and not bodies stretched on a torture frame to extreme length (I’ve clearly read too many historical novels). Although as vigorous training for a field athletics event features in the plot, perhaps the title was intended to have a second meaning.
The Longer Bodies provides the third case for Mitchell’s unusual private detective Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley. Mrs Bradley is a ‘small, thin, unattractive, and intrepid’ woman, a ‘psychoanalyst with a flair for sleuthing’. She also appears to have a flair for extraordinary combinations of colour and design in her attire, but I suppose that doesn’t make her either more or less of a detective. She wouldn’t have been able to work undercover though, judging by this description of her while on the Longer case:
The only remarkable thing about her was the almost indecent hue of the mustard-coloured sports coat which she was wearing, with terrible effect, on top of a tomato-red dress. The costume was set off…by a small cloche hat which boasted a single, straight aggressive feather. The feather shot insolently into the air for a matter of twenty inches or so…
The other aspect to Mrs Bradley’s personal appearance is the oft remarked upon resemblance to a predatory reptile. Gladys Mitchell created a female sleuth as unlike Miss Marple or Miss Silver as it was possible to be, as may be judged by this none too fluffy description of her social manner,
With what was intended to be a whimsical smile, but which approached more nearly to the kind of grin with which an alligator on the banks of the Nile might view the coming of a chubby but careless baby.
Presumably, a wise criminal would steer well clear of that reptilian smile of Beatrice Bradley’s, as I’m sure it boded no good. Mitchell also gave her detective ‘yellow claw like fingers’, which is rather disconcerting as I keep thinking of chicken’s claws whenever her hands are mentioned. To complete the picture, Mrs Bradley was prone to fiendish cackles or screeches of laughter, but in complete contrast had a surprisingly mellifluous speaking voice, ‘which gave the lie to her whole appearance’.
Mrs Bradley is in a very literal sense a rather uncomfortable person to have around as she has a penchant for poking her companions in the ribs with her umbrella. This piece of equipment is the weapon of choice of another of my favourite female detectives, Amelia Peabody, but Mrs Bradley appears to be much more ruthless in making her point (sorry!) with her ferule. It has to be noted that it is her young male sidekicks who often suffer the rib poking, in the course of their duties on the case.
I have since had a minor binge on Mrs Bradley, having obtained a couple more of her cases, When Last I Died (1941) and The Saltmarsh Murders (1932) from the library. Though I’ve not yet managed to get hold of Mrs Bradley’s first outing (Speedy Death). All have been very enjoyable, and I think that overall Gladys Mitchell plays reasonably fairly with the reader’s chances of solving the crime. In other words, I guessed the culprit in The Longer Bodies and I should really have spotted the criminal in The Saltmarsh Murders, because the clues were there. Having re-read the last section of When Last I Died more carefully, I can see the groundwork being laid, so again I would have to admit that I didn’t work hard enough on my detecting.
Mrs Bradley is such as fascinating character, that I would love to come back to her as a future blog post topic. She is not a particularly endearing person, but she is highly intelligent, determined and deliciously eccentric. I think I was particularly touched by her compassion and search for justice for the murder victims in When Last I Died (I won’t plot spoil, but if you read it you will see what I mean). If you want to learn more about Gladys Mitchell and Beatrice Bradley, there is a well researched tribute site that is worth checking out: http://www.gladysmitchell.com by American writer Jason Half.
If you read the clues correctly, you will reason that I will be borrowing/buying another Mrs Bradley case as soon as possible…
Picture Credits: All taken from Amazon this time, including the book jackets as I didn’t get around to scanning them from my own copies.