Originally published in 1949
Mrs Bradley #22
Preceded by The Dancing Druids
Followed by Groaning Spinney/Murder in the Snow
Gerald Conway was a junior master at Spey College. The Head considered him a reliable history specialist and a useful games coach, but his fellow masters thought him a rude and insufferably presumptuous young man and the boys called him a mean and treacherous beast. But, as Inspector Gavin said, “Public schoolboys don’t murder the staff.” Mrs. Bradley wasn’t so certain; at least she felt sure they knew more than they would say. The erudite Micklethwaite, for example, an expert in Judo, refused to speak of the abominable Conway who had accused him of cheating in the exam for the Divinity Prize. Mrs. Bradley had to use tact and guile and a bit of black magic to make boys and masters tell her the whole story.
It is an ongoing frustration for me that Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited service is obsessed with trying to get me to read more Gladys Mitchell books. No matter how much else I read or the scores I assign to the Mitchells I have read, my Suggested For You list is entirely comprised of her works. Which means that from time to time, when I feel forgetful of all of my previous frustrating experiences with her novels (not chronicled here because I do not review books I fail to finish), I find myself clicking that borrow button and rolling the dice once again.
Tom Brown’s Body takes place at Spey College, an English public boarding school. In the story a junior member of the teaching staff, Gerald Conway, is found drowned in another teacher’s garden with markings on his neck and signs of a blow to his head. There is no water nearby so the body was clearly moved which raises questions as to where the man was killed and why.
One theory that concerns the school’s headmaster is that some of the students might be involved. Fearful for the school’s reputation, the headmaster secures the assistance of Mrs. Bradley to come in under the guise of offering psychiatric services to one of the students while also discretely investigating the matter. Fortunately she was in the area, trying to persuade a distant and rather eccentric relative to part with the spellbook owned by one of her ancestors.
Mrs. Bradley soon identifies a good number of possible suspects both from the school’s staff and student bodies. It seems that Conway was not well liked, having fallen out with several colleagues over the previous few days and being widely reviled by his students. Any of them might have committed the murder.
The most impressive aspect of the book for me was its depiction of its public school setting. Mitchell captures each of these elements of the public school experience accurately, creating a really credible school environment complete with tensions within the faculty and between the liberal, modernizing headmaster and his much more conservative school board.
This is a world that is all too familiar to me having spent five years of my life attending one, albeit as a day student. Perhaps the most depressing thing comparing my own experience with those of the fictional students here is how little appeared to have changed over the fifty years that followed this book’s publication. There are certainly quite a few things I recognize from the indulgent theatrical presentations to the teachers’ non-curricular passion projects, obsession with school sports and, of course, the bullying.
Mitchell’s writing is often quite biting, particularly when discussing the attitudes of the adults responsible for these young men. One example of this can be found when the Housemaster contacts the parents of one boy to see if they would consent to their son being seen by a psychiatrist. They reply back giving their agreement on the basis that they cannot think anything that might be done would alter their son for the worse before taking a holiday and forgetting all about it. They were, the Housemaster thinks, ideal ‘for parents who take undue interest in their boys are the bugbear of all Housemasters’.
Mitchell also does not shy away from depicting instances of antisemitism and ‘colour prejudice’ among the teaching staff and the students themselves. Several instances of bullying of a Jewish student by the deceased teacher are listed, making it clear that the experience was harmful to the student and source of considerable pain and resentment for them.
The ‘colour prejudice’ refers to other characters’ views of Prince Takhobali, a West African who receives the nickname ‘Tar Baby’ from students and teachers alike. While I do not doubt that this would be realistic, the student’s cheery acceptance of it renders it as a quirky public school nickname rather than an example of racist bullying and means that it is not entirely clear if Mitchell disapproves of that sort of thing. The character struck me as less dimensional than Issacher, the Jewish student, and I have to confess I felt a little uncomfortable with the tone of the characterization.
The characterizations of the rest of the students and staff all struck me as pretty deep and dimensional with each character possessing quite a distinct personality. In some cases motivations for murder were quite apparent – in others they were slowly revealed. This exploration of personality and interpersonal relationships lies at the core of the novel and makes up the bulk of Mrs. Bradley’s investigative efforts.
I also quite enjoyed the colorful subplot with Lecky Harries, the distant relative who may or may not possess the spellbook belonging to Mary Toadflax. Almost all of the book’s oddness is confined to this aspect of the plot with its talk of witchcraft and magical artifacts and yet it did not feel like a distraction because Mitchell takes the time to establish some clear links between these two plotlines early in the novel.
I have found that Mitchell’s prose can sometimes make for heavy work but here she writes in a pleasingly direct style. There are certainly some examples of some archaic turns of phrase or literary reference and yet their meaning is almost always quite clear from the context and feels quite appropriate in the school setting. The book is a relatively quick, engaging read.
Which leaves the biggest question of all – what did I think of the mystery itself? Well, that is rather tricky to answer. I liked the core premise and found it to be a pretty credible crime that might take place on the grounds of a school. The motivations are explained well and strike me as also being quite convincing, though I do think the killer’s identity will not be much of a surprise for readers. They do rather stand out…
As disappointing as that ending may be, I did find parts of this book to be quite effective and well-described. The setting is clearly a triumph, as are many of the characters. It is unfortunate that the puzzle does not match the quality of these other aspects of the story as in every other respect I would have little hesitation in labeling it easily my favorite Mitchell to date although some might consider that faint praise.
The Verdict: The mystery underwhelms but the setting is credibly drawn as are most of the characters.