I know, I know, this is not what I was supposed to be reviewing next. I promise a review on John Franklin’s The Deadly Percheron will be forthcoming, but I re-read this novel by Mitchell recently in preparation for Jason Half’s approaching Mitchell Mystery Reading Group and I thought to myself that I might as well share some thoughts about the book on my blog as well.
For those not familiar with the book here’s the plot:
‘When Rupert Sethleigh’s body is found one morning, laid out in the village butcher’s shop but minus its head, the inhabitants of Wandles Parva aren’t particularly upset. Sethleigh was a blackmailing money lender and when Mrs Bradley begins her investigations she finds no shortage of suspects. It soon transpires that most of the village seem to have been wandering about Manor Woods, home of the mysterious druidic stone on which Sethleigh’s blood is found splashed, on the night he was murdered, but can she eliminate the red herrings and catch the real killer?’
Whilst the blurb, (taken from the back cover of the Vintage reprint), is not inaccurate I think it is misleading. It gives the reader a false sense of directive-ness, as I increasingly found with this book that the investigation itself lacks a driving force. It meanders here and there, with Mrs Bradley working behind the scenes or having the odd enigmatic conversation with a suspect. The police are even more in the background until the close of the book. It probably doesn’t help that Mrs Bradley does not feature much on the page until nearly a third of the way into the novel, an absence I think is felt due to the lack of presence the main suspects have. They are fine to begin, many of whom feel like they have stepped out of a P. G. Wodehouse novel, but reader interest is not hugely sustainable. Perhaps their relinquishing of their earlier frenzied activity has something to do with this. My own reader-ly interest took a nose dive entering the final third, which for me revolved too much around protracted discussions, which went over same information all the time. Making the narrative shorter would probably have helped in this as this book did feel a little padded out.
However Grinch-ing aside, what else is there to be gleamed from this second mystery by Mitchell?
Well firstly this book consolidates the way in which Mitchell would go on to treat her characters. The most pleasant, the ones the reader will be most sympathetic towards and who are generally the happiest and most vital are ‘the very young’ and the ‘the rather old.’ It is those who are middle aged which are the most petty, selfish, least intelligent, most pompous and of course the most suspicious.
Of course this book is also crucial in the establishing of Mrs Bradley’s character. Those who have read the first mystery starring Mrs Bradley will know how unconventional she can be as a person and as a sleuth. I would go so far as saying that the extensive animal and bird imagery used to describe her, gives her a sense of otherness. On the one hand references to being so old her ‘age is no longer interesting except to the more grasping […] of her relatives’ and to being ‘claw-fingered,’ as well as ‘saurian,’ (a word used to denote especially ‘a large reptile, especially a dinosaur or other extinct form,’) may suggest that she is simply past it, but I think such epitaphs also give her distinct sense of not being like others, almost non-human or residing outside of societal norms.
Moreover, I find that Mrs Bradley’s sense of otherness can also produce a number of contradictions. She may well be of Scottish descent, but she is more often described with exotic Asian references, such as being like a ‘leering idol from the East,’ as well as having the ‘same gentle, anticipatory, patient smile on the face of an alligator in the London Zoological Gardens. It was a smile of quiet relish. It was the smile of the Chinese executioner.’ So in some ways I think the descriptions of Mrs Bradley can actually be misleading to the reader. They are less a depiction of how she actually looks, (as no artist would want the challenge of drawing such a Chimera-like figure), but are more depictions of the responses Mrs Bradley creates in those around her: fear and confusion. An excellent example of this is when Mrs Bradley’s smile is likened to the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, an icon of unpredictable-ness. Yet it wholly applies to Mrs Bradley whose grin is hard for other characters to decipher. Is she for them or against? How much of a threat is she? A question most pressing for the killer, yet with Mrs Bradley you can never be quite sure whether she will see them condemned or let them go unpunished. Uncertainty is definitely a key response towards Mrs Bradley.
One thing you can rely on Mrs Bradley doing is disconcerting the male characters around her and this book contains one of the best written of these moments, with Mitchell allowing us to read the mind of the male character unravelling at the conundrum which is Mrs Bradley:
‘Wright glared at her suspiciously. Women, especially ancient dames like this one, were fools, he knew. Yet was it possible – ? But Mrs Bradley’s wrinkled yellow face was mild and sweet as that of a grandmother – which owing to the extreme distaste displayed by her only son for the whole female sex, she was certainly not! – and Wright was forced the conclusion that – alas for the progress of feminism! – it was possible! The woman was an idiot? Why had he shivered when she smiled?’
Perfection! No prior experiences can ever prepare a man for meeting for Mrs Bradley! The rule book is decidedly making its way out of the window into space and it is intriguing how perhaps female characters regain their equilibrium around Mrs Bradley much quicker than their male counterparts. One possible reason for this can be found in the thoughts of a different male character who thinks that Mrs Bradley is ‘amusing herself at your expense, which was ninety per cent of the time – and the other ten per cent was when she didn’t even seem aware that you were on the map at all!’ I will probably get shot down in flames for making this suggestion but perhaps these two reasons: of not being given attention and then being given attention which lowers the prestige of the other, may not go down well with the male ego….
On to much safer ground, like Ngaio Marsh I think Mitchell can set up an unusual mystery quite well and in the opening chapters of the story seeds of misunderstanding are sown and soon bear fruit; bodies and clues seem to vanish and reappear at will. Yet I think the lack of direction in the investigation meant this set up was not done justice, something which can be seen in the final solution, which heavily relies on psychological evidence. Mitchell’s endings can be relied upon to be interestingly unorthodox, but I find I always have less confidence over her solutions than I do with her contemporaries. But again the focus of her endings is somewhat different perhaps, with the emphasis being on the reader to determine whether Mrs Bradley has done the right thing or not.
Apologies for returning to my Grinch-ing, but to end on a more positive note here are some of my favourite quotes from this story:
Maternal instinct is at a low point when Constance considers her fear that there are burglars in the house: ‘What of Aubrey? Was he safe? She decided hastily that of course he was perfectly safe. Burglars had no interest in boys.’
Here we find the idea that only tall people can be outlandish in their behaviour: ‘Rupert Sethleigh was give feet seven and a quarter in his socks, the wrong height for such impetuous behaviour.’
Mrs Bradley’s rude unconventional approach to defusing tension: ‘Onions. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it one hundred times to you girls – do not come into my presence when you have been eating onions. A repulsive. Disgusting, sickening, malodorous, anti-social vegetable!’
Mrs Bradley’s equally unconventional view on murderers: ‘That is the worst of a crime like murder. One’s sympathies are so often with the murderer. One can see so many reasons why the murdered person was – well, murdered. The chief fault I have to find with most murderers is that they lack a sense of humour.’
So whilst I don’t think I enjoyed this one quite as much as I did first time round, it is still one of Mitchell’s most lucid plots and Mrs Bradley will always remain an enthralling and captivating sleuth for me.