It has been far harder than I expected to figure out how I would complete this last category in the 2018 Vintage Mysteries Challenge. I thought I had it all figured out last month when I read A Javelin for Jonah, another book by Gladys Mitchell, only to discover when I was quite a way into the book that it was written well after the 1960 cutoff date. Whoops.
I did contemplate picking a book set at a college like Death on the Cherwell or Gaudy Night but would they really constitute a school mystery? I was pretty sure that I would have said not back in January and if I am going to do a mysteries challenge then I was determined to do it right. After weeks of procrastination I decided yesterday afternoon that I would return to Gladys Mitchell, this time carefully checking the publication date before I commenced reading.
The novel I selected was St. Peter’s Finger, one of Mitchell’s earliest Mrs. Bradley mysteries. It begins with her responding to a request from one of her sons that she visit a convent school where a student had been found dead in mysterious circumstances.
The victim, thirteen year old Ursula Doyle, was an heiress who has two cousins also attending the school. She was found dead in a bathroom in the convent’s guest-house of carbon monoxide poisoning yet the bath had been stopped running, the windows were open, there were no signs of violence on the body and no faults could be found in the room’s gas line. The nuns dispute the coroner’s verdict of suicide and ask her to see if she can find evidence supporting the idea of an accidental death.
When Mrs. Bradley begins her investigation she soon discovers that there are problems with both of these explanations for the death. Before long she becomes convinced that the girl must have been murdered but the problem is working out who could have committed the crime and how they managed it. Soon she finds her own life may be in danger, not to mention the lives of the victim’s family.
One of the greatest strengths of St. Peter’s Finger is the way Mitchell is able to evoke the sense of belonging to a convent community. She introduces us to quite a wide selection of nuns, teachers and convent school students, each of whom has a different response and level of comfort with the environment. For some it is a place of comfort, friendship and support while others chafe at the restrictions and the rules. One thing that most of these characters have in common is their unwillingness to volunteer information to Mrs. Bradley which makes her investigation more challenging.
Mitchell does introduce us to quite a large group of characters and most feel pretty distinctive from each other there were some points where I was mixing up some of the minor characters and the relationships to each other. While this caused a little frustration for me early in the novel, I did appreciate that it does help give the sense of a real, bustling institution and all of the most critical characters were very well-defined and memorable.
In my review of A Javelin for Jonah I barely remarked on the character of our sleuth, Mrs. Bradley. Just about the only remark I made was noting how little time is spent establishing her character, speculating that was a reflection of it being a later installment in a long-running series. I did find that the character is not really given much more of an introduction here although we do learn a little about her family and household but she does at least feature from the start of the novel and the action centers on her investigation.
Mitchell does not feature passages of really detailed descriptions of her protagonist and yet I had far less difficulty imagining her than in that other story because aspects of her personality emerge in the course of the investigation. She is a little haughty in her manner at times yet she shows signs of genuine warmth and concern for others such as a girl from the orphanage who frequently finds herself in trouble. I wouldn’t say that she is an investigator I would want to know if they existed in person but then who would want to know Poirot or Miss Marple?
I can say that I enjoyed following her investigation which I was pleased to find turned out to be less straightforward than it initially appeared. In fact I spend a good chunk of the book worrying that I had worked out the solution far too early and I kept waiting for some twist or moment that would make me realize I was horribly off track. That moment never quite came in the way I expected and while there are a few loose ends in the story, I was largely satisfied with the solution to the case.
A bigger problem for me was the novel’s pacing which at times seemed ponderous. I was particularly conscious of this in the section of the book between a night-time attack and a character leaving. Not much new information or evidence is found in those chapters that moves on our understanding of the situation and while I appreciated the chance to explore some of the suspects’ psychologies, I felt that the book may have benefited from a little trimming to some elements that were not directly linked to the solution.
The positive side to the novel’s leisurely pacing is that it does allow for some moments of humor and wry observation about convent life that I would certainly miss if they were gone. It was those moments that I think helped make this a more entertaining read than Jonah and I can say that I consider it a much better puzzle in terms of its construction and the range of elements involved. While I don’t expect to make a quick return to Mitchell in the next few months I may be a little more optimistic the next time I reach for one from this series.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: At a School (Where)