Discovering Gladys Mitchell

It was Monday. Little requires to be said about such a day. Charles James Sinclair Redsey, who, like Mr Milne’s Master Morrison, was commonly known as Jim, sat on the arm of one of the stout, handsome, leather-covered armchairs in the library of the Manor House at Wandles Parva, and kicked the edge of the sheepskin rug.

Any writer who references AA Milne’s poem ‘Disobedience’ in the first paragraph has got to be worth reading – and Gladys Mitchell’s The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop more than lived up to that opening paragraph. For those who don’t remember, Milne’s Jim is James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree, who took great care of his mother, though he was only three, and told her she couldn’t go down to the end of the town unless she went down with him. Now, I may be old-fashioned,GD was an odious little brat, who would have benefited enormously from what used to be called ‘a good hiding’, and I hope his mother ran away with the raggle taggle Gypsies and lived happily ever after!

Anyway, I digress. Mitchell’s Jim is nice young man, even if he is rather dense and a little hot tempered. He is staying with his wealthy, older cousin Rupert Sethleigh who, like James James’ mother, seems to have been mislaid. His disappearance is discovered when Mr Theodore Grayling, solicitor, turns up to discuss changes to Sethleigh’s will. Jim, who stands to inherit under the old will, admits he quarrelled with his cousin, and is behaving very strangely. He claims his cousin has gone to America, but this does not seem to be the case…

Murder (for murder it is) is a serious business, but what follows is positively farcical, and the story gallops along at a breath-taking pace, with all the right ingredients for a thoroughly enjoyable mystery. There’s a spooky wood where all sorts of people were wandering around on the night of the killing, a Stone of Sacrifice (complete with blood stains), and a suitcase (with more blood stains), which appears and disappears, like a prop in a conjurer’s act. In addition there’s a human skull which also keeps being lost anf found, a set of false teeth, and a dead fish. And, of course, there’s a corpse: a headless, neatly jointed body found hanging on hooks in the butcher’s store room!

Inspector Grind has hIs work cut out trying to solve the mystery, especially as the dead man was an unpleasant, unprincipled ‘bounder’ who amassed a fortune by charging exorbitant interest on financial loans and indulging in the odd bit of blackmail – and couldn’t keep his hands off the local women. Jim would seem to be the obvious suspect, but he was in the pub, so drunk and incapable he had to be carried home. Maybe one of Sethleigh’s victims administered his own form of justice. Or maybe, unlikely though it seems, Mrs Bryce Harringay, the aunt of Sethleigh and Jim, wanted to secure the house and money for her adored son Aubrey. Or maybe it’s the forgetful vicar, or the doctor who wants to keep a secret from the past hidden. And what about the two strange artist, newcomers to the village, and the woman who lives with them? The plot gets more and more weird, and more and more incomprehensible as Aubrey joins forces with Felicity (the vicar’s daughter) to muddy the waters and protect Jim.

The star of the book, undoubtedly, is psychoanalyst Mrs Bradley, whose amateur sleuthing is not always appreciated by the police. Like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, she is knocking on a bit. But unlike them she does not look sweet or innocent – there’s an element of malice in her. And shewould never, ever blend into the background (nor would she want to). There is nothing gentle or kindly about her – indeed, Gladys Mitchel tells us:

Mrs Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, twice widowed, black-eyed, claw-fingered, age no longer interesting except to the more grasping and avaricious of her relatives, smiled the saurian smile of the sand lizard and basked in the full glare of the sun in the charming old-world garden of the Stone House, Wandles.

Mrs Bradley is very intelligent and shrewd, but she also has a physical strength that belies her age and appearance – I’d lay good money on a heavy-weight boxer coming off second-best if it came to a fight! Surprisingly, she has a beautfil speaking voice (despite her unnerving cackle), and she has the most appalling clothes. For example, there’s a blue and sulphur jumper ‘like the plumage of a macaw’, and the hideous ‘magenta silk dress, summer coat to match, large black picture hat (quite ludicrously unbecoming)’ that she wears when visiting the pub.

I’m fascinated to find out what drives her: she lacks the sense of right and wrong displayed by Miss Marple and Miss Silver, or perhaps she has a different idea of justice. She certainly has no sympathy with the murder victim. All things considered, Mrs Bradley is not a likable character, but she is unforgettable because she doesn’t conform to any of the traditional views of women’s roles at the time this was published in 1930.

Gladys Mitchell, courtesy of Michael Joseph,
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4 thoughts on “Discovering Gladys Mitchell

    1. Bit of a late reply! I’ve read some more of her work now, and agree with you. Gladys Mitchel is not the greatest writer in the world, and her plots are bonkers, but she is very entertaining, and her charcters are wonderful!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. She’s far, far better than the TV series – and having read this I would say that Diana Rigg, who I usually like, was hopelessly miscast. Sorry!

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