When Last I Died (1941) by Gladys Mitchell

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Moon

It has been ages since I have read a novel by Gladys Mitchell. Her output is mixed to say the least in terms of quality, with her bizarre combination of characters, settings and events not always working out. My two favourites from her have been Speedy Death (1929) and The Saltmarsh Murders (1932), probably followed by The Mystery of the Butcher’s Shop (1929) and Tom Brown’s Body (1949). When Last I Died (1941) is a re-read for me, prompted by it being mentioned in something I was reading and realising I couldn’t remember a thing about it. On my Goodreads I seem to have given it a middling rating so I was interested to see whether a re-read will change this.

When Last I Died

The story begins with Mrs Bradley visiting an institution for ‘delinquent’ boys. Through this visit she firstly hears about two boys who escaped from the institute 6 years ago, but who were never found and who were possibly aided and abetted by a staff member. This visit also leads to Mrs Bradley renting a seaside home to which she plans to invite some of the boys to visit, as an experiment in whether under a different regime their behaviour might improve. The seaside home in question is recommended by the institute’s warden, informing Mrs Bradley that it used to belong to the aunt of the institute’s former house keeper, Bella Foxley. There is a mystery attached to the Foxley, as she was tried for the murder of her cousin and though acquitted committed suicide a year later.

Unsurprisingly the institute and its’ governors are not quick to take Mrs Bradley up on her seaside retreat offer, but there is plenty to keep her occupied whilst she is waiting. It all begins with a diary Mrs Bradley’s grandson finds in the rented accommodation, which purports to be by Bella Foxley. Through this diary which Mrs Bradley reads, we seemingly get a record of the events which led up to the death of Foxley’s aunt and of her cousin Tom, who died having fallen out of the window of a supposedly haunted house he was investigating. The diary also comments on the missing boys. However, this diary is not an entirely accurate version of events, with Mrs Bradley quickly finding discrepancies between the diary and the accounts given by other eye witnesses and in fact the diary reveals far more about the writer than those written about.

And so Mrs Bradley continues to open this cold case or cases rather, as she is convinced that the death of Foxley’s aunt and cousin and the escape of the two boys are interlinked. She converses with many different people from jurors at the trial to people living in the area at the time and Mrs Bradley’s theories concerning the case shift from time to time as more information becomes available. The solution comes in turns and twists and from about half way through the book is increasingly revised, meaning that in each revision more correct and less incorrect pieces of the puzzle become available.

Overall Thoughts

Mitchell for a lot of her working life was a school teacher, of English, history and games, so it was interesting to see how she presented the institute for ‘delinquent’ boys and it is tantalising to decide which views in the book might have been closest to her own. The warden of the institute is described as being quite ‘naïve,’ yet also weak in terms of his discipline which is riddled with misplaced and mistimed kindness along with illogical punishment. The naivety element reminded me a little of Christie’s later novel They Did It With Mirrors (1952). Mrs Bradley whose opinion was sought a decade earlier on the care of such boys said that ‘delinquent children like delinquent adults, can be divided into those brands which can be snatched from the burning and those which, unfortunately, cannot, should (literally) be killed or cured.’ Oddly enough this opinion wasn’t acted on at the time, though Mrs Bradley does find it amusing that 10 years later they call her in as ‘the new methods… had again sprung a leak…’ This part of the book did make me think of our own education system and how the government frequently like to make sweeping changes, not all of which are sound. Though to be fair to Mrs Bradley at least she thinks some of the boys can be helped, as her son Ferdinand is much more fatalistic: ‘They must be the most unhappy devils on earth, those delinquent kids. You can’t really do anything for most of ‘em. They’re a mess, like Humpty Dumpty when he fell off the wall.’

Unsurprisingly Bella Foxley’s character is focused on a lot in this novel and something which struck me about her was that in some ways she parallels Mrs Bradley. Both are unconventional, observe others in a scientific manner and dislike having to maintain veers of social conventionality. However, what sets them apart is that Foxley’s unconventionality is much less appealing than Mrs Bradley’s. Foxley is antisocial, lacking warmth and she is self-centred, focusing on her own comforts. In contrast although Mrs Bradley may be decidedly wacky at times, she is sympathetic, generous and kind with it. Though I did notice in this re-read that in this particular case, Mitchell comments far less on Mrs Bradley’s physical appearance in comparison to earlier novels, where Mrs Bradley has an almost chimera quality.

In some ways I timed the reading of this book well as it tied into other things I had been perusing, in particular I have recently read something on female killers and how they are perceived. Wetherby, Blanche and Jones (2008) in their paper argue that for female defendants, ‘their personal appearance is another aspect that is judged and critiqued.’ They go on to say that ‘it has been concluded that gender images affect beliefs about which female offenders are deserving (or not) of leniency.’ In my brain this linked to Bella Foxley as in the story she is said to have:

‘made an unfortunate impression in court… She was quite a tall woman… five feet eight… and a bit bloated, with a bad skin – greasy and blackheads – rather repulsive really. Besides which, she looked every inch a spinster… She was not at all nervous… and that was what impressed people most unfavourably…’

This description highlights how in many ways Foxley defies gender stereotypes and expectations, as she is not aesthetically pleasing and she is outside of the expectations of women marrying and being more easily frightened. The prejudice generated by her image is evinced when Mrs Bradley talks to one of the jurors at the original trial, who says that he ‘had believed Bella Foxley guilty because he did not like her face.’

As I was reading this story, the plot did come back to me and as the book progressed I did notice clues I had overlooked first time round. Although I remembered elements of the solution I still got the “who” part wrong, though this may have been contributed to by the slightly convoluted nature of the solution. As I mentioned previously the solution takes shape over half of the novel with variations and new ideas being added. I found this a novel way of delivering the solution, yet unfortunately its’ execution let it down as this aspect of the book was spun out too long and the pacing of the second half of the story suffered greatly. Though I think it should said that this is one of Mitchell’s more conventional mystery novels as the plot is not too batty, which is the case in some of her works where things don’t make much sense and don’t always add up.

Rating: 3.5/5

Bibliography

Weatherby, G. A., Blanche, J. and Rebecca Jones. (2008). The Value of Life: Female Killers and the Feminine Mystique. Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice Research and Education. 2 (1).

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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15 Responses to When Last I Died (1941) by Gladys Mitchell

  1. It might have been me who put it into your head, as I’ve badmouthed Saltmarsh in the past in favour of this one. Glad you seemed to enjoy it a bit more second time around.

    Liked by 1 person

    • JJ says:

      Not only is Saltmarsh a bad novel, the young man who narrates it is in serious need of euthanising — without a doubt the single most blood-boilingly irritating, vacuous, and needlessly dense narrative voice ever employed by anyone in the history of crime fiction. It’s making me angry just thinking about it… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • It could well have been you. I think I did enjoy it a bit more this time round, but I’d have to re-read The Saltmarsh Murders again to see whether I still prefer it to When Last I Died. I remember enjoying the vicar narrator of TSMs.

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  2. Pingback: When Last I Died (1941) by Gladys Mitchell | picardykatt's Blog

  3. JFW says:

    Oh dear, TomCat just recommended me ‘Saltmarsh Murders’, together with ‘Come Away, Death’ and ‘Mystery of the Butcher’s Shop’. I’ve only read ‘Death at the Opera’, which didn’t come across as overly crazy; neither was it particularly engaging though.

    I’m very excited about your next review – as I’ve been contemplating purchasing more Pamela Branch on my Kindle.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well I don’t think you need to despair just yet. Technically the people for and against TSM is even. JJ and PD anti and TC and Me pro. Be interesting to see what you make of it. Out of the Mitchell’s you mention, SM and MOTBS are my preferred ones. I am planning to re-read CAD at some point though. The Twenty Third Man is a good example of Mitchell gone potty. Which Branch novels have you read?

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      • JFW says:

        I’m (slightly) embarrassed to confess that I’ve not actually read anything by Pamela Branch. Her first two novels are awaiting perusal on my Kindle, and I’m contemplating purchasing the last two before the Murder Room titles disappear…

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well stocking up is not a bad idea when an imprint is closing. I did something similar when the closure of the Rue Morgue Press was announced. If you love comic crime then you’ll love Pamela Branch.

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  4. John says:

    Count me in the camp that dislikes SALTMARSH. My favorites so far among Mitchell: HERE COMES A CHOPPER, MERLIN’S FURLONG, DANCE TO YOUR DADDY (probably the best of her work in the 1960s), ECHOING STRANGERS and WHEN LAST I DIED. Good but not stellar: MYSTERY OF THE BUTCHER’S SHOP, THE LONGER BODIES, GROANING SPINNEY, and THE RISING OF THE MOON. I’ve read four others but they’re just OK or have too many storytelling flaws to make them worth tracking down. Those you should completely avoid: FAINTLEY SPEAKING (yeech!) and any of the books she wrote as “Malcolm Torrie” which are just deadly dull, IMO.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the warning! Haven’t read any of your favourite Mitchells, but helpful to know which titles to look for when I next purchase one. Didn’t enjoy The Rising of the Moon and found The Longer Bodies quite average. Didn’t realise she also wrote as Malcolm Torrie.

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