Death at the Opera by Gladys Mitchell

Originally published in 1934
Mrs. Bradley #5
Preceded by The Saltmarsh Murders
Followed by The Devil at Saxon Wall

Hillmaston School has chosen The Mikado for their next school performance and, in recognition of her generous offer to finance the production, their meek and self-effacing arithmetic mistress is offered a key role. But when she disappears mid-way through the opening night performance and is later found dead, unconventional psychoanalyst Mrs. Bradley is called in to investigate. To her surprise, she soon discovers that the hapless teacher had quite a number of enemies—all with a motive for murder…

Back when I shared my Five to Try: Theatrical Mysteries list, one area I managed to overlook was the world of amateur dramatics. It was not a deliberate omission but it was a pretty big one given that novels from the Golden Age of Detection often seem to feature characters whose background in student theatricals or Christmas skits is used to explain their ability to pull off sensational disguises, even if front of those who know them best.

Had I read today’s book prior to writing that post I can say that it almost certainly would have featured as the plot centers on a school production of The Mikado at the progressive, co-educational Hillmaston School. Most of the roles are to be played by the teaching faculty though a few students are recruited for the juvenile parts and everyone seems to be looking forward to the occasion. Perhaps none more than Miss Ferris, the Arithmetic Mistress, who offered to finance the production herself and was offered the part of Katisha, an elderly maid who is betrothed to Nanki-Poo, the young hero.

It is a surprise then when she fails to appear shortly before she is to go on stage, forcing another actress to take her place. When her body is found drowned in a wash basin the other staff want to believe it was an accident or suicide but the headmaster has other ideas. He decides to contact Mrs. Bradley and brings her in to investigate the matter under the guise of hiring her as a temporary replacement to see out the term…

Death at the Opera really caught my attention right from the very start with the very humorous scene in which the faculty sit and debate what to choose for their next theatrical piece. I have remarked before on how well Mitchell captures the school setting and I think this is the best example of that I have found to date. In just a handful of pages we get a strong sense of the school and the types of individuals that work there based on their interactions and the desires they express, helping to establish those characters as credible, dimensional figures.

The pages that follow do a good job of teasing out and exploring some of those character relationships, adding to the sense of depth as we learn more about each of them. The discoveries include secret passions and rivalries which not only do a good job of setting up and teasing the murder to come but help give that sense of a group of coworkers who know each other very well from years of working together.

The discovery of the body is certainly a dramatic moment and I think the circumstances in which it happens are quite striking. While the reader will naturally be aware that it is murder, I appreciated that this was a scenario in which it was feasible that others might interpret it differently which prompts some interesting exchanges and gives Mrs. Bradley a little more room to pry than might have been the case with a stabbing or shooting.

Mrs. Bradley’s investigation is interview-heavy but there are so many discoveries and revelations, whether in the form of new pieces of evidence or reflections and interpretations of what we have, that our understanding of the situation seems to be in near-continuous movement. This is a very good thing and I think it is part of the reason that I found this to be so engaging, especially when coupled with some of our protagonist’s rather unconventional attitudes and behaviors.

The questions that absorb her interest concern characters’ movements on the night of the murder and uncovering any past animosities. These are interesting questions and I appreciated the way each was handled. Before long we have a good mix of suspects of consider and, adding to the novelty, this is a rare example of a case involving a real text that will inform our understanding of characters’ movements during the night in question. For those who are less keen on Gilbert and Sullivan, rest assured that those details will be spelled out for you too long before we get to the big reveal.

Speaking of the big reveal, now’s probably a good time to mention that this is a case of a novel that pulls that off in its very last line much as Ellery Queen did in The French Powder Mystery. I feel though that this one manages to do it with a little added drama. It’s partly that the way it is revealed feels a little less contrived than in the Queen novel but I also appreciate the circumstances in which it is revealed which feels very fitting overall.

On the other hand, while I find the solution quite delightful in some respects I have to confess that the motive here doesn’t remotely stack up or make much sense. If it were anyone other than Mrs. Bradley investigating this I might feel a little underwhelmed or cheated but it does fit her rather well and I felt that the method used was explained clearly.

While I cannot completely overlook how silly the matter of the motive feels, I do appreciate the tone of the piece overall and I find it to be a really entertaining story. It’s easily my favorite of the Mrs. Bradley stories I have read to date, feeling it balanced the humorous and mysterious elements together very well. I am sure I will be returning to Gladys Mitchell again soon without a doubt!

The Verdict: Amusing school satire and a cleverly timetabled crime made Death at the Opera a thoroughly engaging read for me.

The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop by Gladys Mitchell

Originally published in 1929
Mrs. Bradley #2
Preceded by A Speedy Death
Followed by The Longer Bodies

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 investigation 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?

Over the past few months I have made several attempts to start reading some later Gladys Mitchell novels, only to find myself struggling to get into them. I didn’t expect to find myself trying again so soon but a bit of adventurous reading was forced on me when I found myself without the book I was reading and needing one I could quickly access online. The Kindle Unlimited program seems to be largely consisted of Mitchell novels (at least in the US) and so I found myself scouring the blurbs to try and find one that appealed. Happily this one grabbed me with its rather grim premise.

Rupert Sethleigh has, without any apparent warning, suddenly disappeared from his home in Wandles Parva. While there is some suggestion that he might have abruptly left for America, his aunt, Mrs. Bryce Harringay, cannot believe that he would undertake a sea voyage knowing his fear of travelling. She insists on speaking to the authorities about the matter and when a headless human body is discovered, hung in pieces in the butcher’s shop, they wonder if they have found the missing man.

This image of the body in the butcher’s shop was the one that grabbed my attention when I read the blurb being so macabre. Thankfully the scene is not particularly descriptive (at least in comparison to some other recent reads featuring dismemberment) but instead it is presented in more abstract terms. It does however build a sense of a disturbing atmosphere, which is added to by the presence of a druidic stone nearby that was supposed to have been the site of human sacrifices in antiquity and on which is found a small amount of fresh blood. I know that themes of witchcraft and paganism are found in abundance in Mitchell’s work and given that this is her second novel, it is clear that they were with it from the start.

On that matter of the stone, I have to say that a small gripe I have with this book is the way it repeatedly reintroduces that stone in similar portentous terms on several occasions in just a dozen or so pages. While I think this is meant to add a sense of dread I feel this could have been better conveyed either with a more detailed description of its history or physical characteristics. This is a relatively small part of the novel however and I felt that the repeated descriptions issue was not a problem with any other element of the book.

The police’s investigation into Rupert’s life soon reveals reasons that many in the village might have wanted him dead. He was, we discover, a bad sort and when Mrs. Bradley reflects on how ‘one can see so many reasons why the murdered person was – well, murdered’ we may well see her point. While many have motives however the police soon settle on Jim Redsey, his cousin, as the focus of their enquiries. Determined to ensure that the police do not simply accuse him out of convenience, Mrs. Bradley declares that she will not leave the village until she has ensured his freedom.

It should be said at this point that Mrs. Bradley, at least in this novel, is not a particularly active investigator. This gives the book a rather unfocused quality as she does not so much direct the investigation but rather seems to repeatedly respond to it. Though she is present in the story from the beginning, she exists in the background until over a third of the way in and even once she does appear, there is little sense of a structured investigation taking place. Her style here is rather to badger the police, asking awkward questions or making knowing assertions that encourage them to look at evidence from a different perspective. When investigation is required she tends to do so through an intermediary, sometimes sending them to gather information on her behalf.

This passive style of investigation can be quite frustrating as there are points where one wishes that Mrs. Bradley would simply come out and say what she is thinking rather than playing games with the police but I think that is quite intentional. Her interest is not so much in finding the guilty party but in protecting a particular person. When their protection necessitates firmer action she steps in but often she is just happy to sit back and let things play out. I think were the case less entertaining I could well have tired of that approach. Here however this less structured approach allows an opportunity for exploration of the quirky individuals involved in this case as well as some further moments of oddity.

In her review, linked below, Kate suggests that many of the characters feel like they have stepped out of a P. G. Wodehouse novel. I had a similar reaction, particularly in relation to the business concerning the theft of a ‘valuable’ stuffed fish (it must be valuable or else why else would it have been stolen, Aunt Bryce Harringay points out) which put me in mind of silver cow creamers. Certainly there are a number of moments in which the story threatens to dissolve into farce, particularly as it becomes clear that almost everyone seems to have been in or around those woods that evening. I would describe these moments as more amusing than hilarious but I enjoyed them nonetheless.

While often taking comedic detours, the grim nature of the crime keeps pulling the tone and the narrative back and reminding us of its darker aspects and that we have a murderer to find. There are plenty of clues turned up, each seemingly adding to the complexity of this crime requiring Mrs. Bradley to step in at the end and sort the whole business out for us.

This brings me to the bit of the book I liked least, though I note others feel quite differently from me – the reproduction of Mrs. Bradley’s notebook. While I certainly appreciated the little sketches which do help make sense of the geography of the crime, the structure of the text as a series of questions and answers, though neat, struck me as being both dry and a little tedious. It’s a particular shame because this text lacks Mrs. Bradley’s strong personality that is so present throughout every other bit of this novel.

The novel’s solution and resolution however is very interesting, if typically (for Mitchell) unorthodox in a few respects. While I didn’t love the manner of laying out the points leading to that solution, I think a couple of the crucial points made are really quite clever contributing to a story that feels quite strikingly different. It is certainly the Mitchell story I have most enjoyed reading to date and while I am by no means a devotee, this does leave me more interested to try her work again in the future.

As always I welcome any recommendations for favorite Mitchells if you have them!

The Verdict: Though the subject matter is dark, this is a surprisingly humorous read.

This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Snatch & Grab category as a Golden Age read.

Further Reading

Jason @ The Stone House rates this one very highly, appreciating its colorful and bizarre qualities. There are also links at the bottom of that post to some more detailed discussions from the Mitchell Mystery Reading Group.

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World also considers this particular successful, describing it as ‘sheer good fun’.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime is a little less enthusiastic, particularly about the treatment of the clues, noting that she enjoyed it more on her first read.

Tom Brown’s Body by Gladys Mitchell

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.

Crime on the Coast & No Flowers by Request by Members of the Detection Club

Originally Published 1954/1953

The Detection Club produced several collaborative stories in which members contributed a section making up a part of a bigger mystery story. Perhaps the most famous of these is The Floating Admiral but there were several others including the two efforts contained in this volume.

This book is a very slim volume as each of the stories is only about seventy-five pages long. The list of collaborators is a little less star-studded than the one in The Floating Admiral with the first story featuring few familiar names other than Carr’s. No Flowers by Request boasts a more familiar lineup of some of the leading female crime writers of the decade who likely better known to modern readers.

Crime on the Coast

Authors: John Dickson Carr, Valerie White, Laurence Meynell, Joan Fleming, Michael Cronin, Elizabeth Ferrars

The first story in this double-header originally appeared as a serial in the News Chronicle in 1954. Each of the authors gets two consecutive short chapters, just eleven or twelve pages, to make their contribution to the story each picking up from the conclusion of the previous author.

The first two chapters are the work of John Dickson Carr who sets up an interesting adventure scenario in which a mystery author arrives at a seaside fun fair at the urging of his publisher. A ‘fat man’ urges him to take a ride on Ye Olde Haunted Mill which he declines on the grounds that it is a romantic ride for two and is surprised when a very attractive young woman he had never seen before calls him by name, urges him to take the ride with her telling him that it is a matter of life and death.

The first two chapters are quite amusing in spots and do set up an appropriately mysterious situation for the succeeding writers to work with. Characterization is slight but that seems appropriate for this sort of story where the writers are trying to change directions and introduce new elements and the action is pretty well paced, although I think things get a little tangled towards the end.

I am not familiar with the other contributors’ styles having only read Laurence Meynell’s work before (and I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t found I already had a tag for him on here) so it is hard to judge the success of the other collaborators. If our measure is whether the works feel consistent enough that a reader might be persuaded they were the work of a single writer then I think it succeeds but personally I think that misses the point of a collaborative story. For me these stories should be about celebrating the differences between the writers rather than an exercise in literary craftsmanship.

As such I feel ambivalent towards this story. It is competent if not particularly exciting work and will do little to make you seek out a story by, for instance, Joan Fleming or Michael Cronin if they are new to you.

No Flowers By Request

Authors: Dorothy L. Sayers, E. C. R. Lorac, Gladys Mitchell, Anthony Gilbert, Christianna Brand

The second story appeared in the Daily Sketch in 1953 and follows a similar format. Each author gets two chapters although there is a little more variation in the lengths – Sayers and Brand each get 18 pages whereas Lorac and Mitchell contribute just 12.

The story concerns a widow whose children have grown and decides that she will work as a housekeeper. She accepts a position working within a house in the country for a couple, an artist and his invalid wife, whose niece lives with them along with an injured airman and a nurse.

Sayers’ opening chapters set up the situation in which she and the niece are left alone in the home with the invalid wife and asked to check in on her. When they do they find her in a bad way and try to summon the doctor but are unable to get him to come out. She dies later that night, apparently of digitalis poisoning.

Unlike the previous story here each of the authors is able to put more of their storytelling style into their chapters. For example Mitchell gets to deal with some of the mutual suspicion that develops within the home. Their writing is still clearly a little constrained in scope and style to make sure it fits alongside the others’ work but I think it is easier to see that it is the work of multiple writers.

I feel that the story also benefits from the creation of a much stronger central character in the form of Mrs. Merton who is a rather formidable personality. She is not a particularly pleasant character but she is consistently portrayed across each of the chapters and it does feel like she plays a more active role in her story than Philip Courtney ever does in Crime on the Coast.

I found the solution to the puzzle to be more interesting and complex than I expected, holding together pretty well. Brand’s final chapter is, perhaps, a little confusing and I did have to reread the final few pages to be sure I understood an aspect of the ending but I think she does manage to pull the clues together to reach a convincing conclusion that fits the situation, clues and characters well.

I do think it is easily the more successful of the two stories here. It is not a perfect work and I can’t shake the feeling that any one of these authors given the premise to work with on their own (and an extra hundred pages) might have created something even more imaginative and satisfying but it is a pretty successful collaboration that does at least represent its authors.


When I bought this collected volume I spent no more than a dollar on it and I do not regret that purchase but I do not think I would feel the same if I had spent much more than that. It is an interesting curio and I do think the second tale is a pretty engaging short story. Do be aware that it is a very short volume however and that few of the authors are shown to their best advantage.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Written by more than one person (What)

St. Peter’s Finger by Gladys Mitchell

Originally Published 1938
Mrs Bradley #8
Preceded by Come Away, Death
Followed by Printer’s Error

Mrs. Beatrice Lestrange Bradley receives a visit from her barrister son, Ferdinand Lestrange, who brings with him a plea for help. The coastal convent and girls’ school of Saint Peter’s Finger reports that student Ursula Doyle has died under inexplicable circumstances. The poor girl was found in the filled tub of a guesthouse bathroom but the coroner discovers that she had died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Fearing public outcry at the suspicious death, the nuns ask the Home Office psychoanalyst to look into matters. Mrs. Bradley dutifully attends...

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)

A Javelin for Jonah by Gladys Mitchell

Originally Published 1974
Mrs Bradley #47
Preceded by The Murder of Busy Lizzie
Followed by Winking at the Brim

A Javelin for Jonah is set at a private school that caters to the delinquent children of the well-to-do, encouraging them to turn their attention towards athletic pursuits. One of the faculty, David “Jonah” Jones, frustrates colleagues and students alike with his excessive drinking, poor work ethic and attempts to proposition the female students.

When the news breaks that he was responsible for getting a young servant pregnant it is assumed that there will be some consequence but his sudden disappearance from campus is surprising. Several days later he turns up dead prompting Hamish Gavin, a teacher who has joined the school on a short-term contract, to contact his godmother Dame Beatrice for her assistance.

Prior to reading this my only experience of Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley novels had been that whenever the television adaptations came on my parents told me that I was too young to watch them and that I had to go to bed. Of course the advantage of having been deprived of watching the adaptations is that the stories are all new to me today when I’d likely appreciate them more.

A Javelin for Jonah is one of the later novels in Gladys Mitchell’s series so I guess the first question I should address is why did I start here? Honestly, I think it was little more than a whim. I rather enjoy stories set in schools and so the idea of Joynings, this school for delinquent children, is inherently mysterious. What did these teens and young adults do to end up there and why are some of these teachers working there rather than at a university or more traditional private school?

The strongest part of the story is Mitchell’s depiction of the classes and culture of the school which surprised me with how gritty it feels. It is the Byker Grove to They Do It With Mirrors’ Grange Hill. Students are profane, proposition the teachers and consume drugs, alcohol and cigarettes (although they are not supposed to have any spending money on campus). Similarly the teachers can be harsh and physical in their responses to the students’ behavior such as Hamish when he responds to a student smart-mouthing him by grabbing him, swinging him around and kicking him across the room.

What I think makes Mitchell’s portrayal work are not the depictions of dysfunction but those that create the sense that these students have formed a community and look out for each other. They all have their own issues that have caused them to be brought to the school but those moments and instincts help give a sense that these are troubled people rather than simple generic troublemaker characters and many of those moments feel well-observed.

Similarly I appreciated the breadth of character types we get among the faculty. Mitchell’s characters feel fleshed out and credible, each having their own reasons for choosing to work in such a challenging environment and their frustrations with each other and with the students all seemed well-observed. Between students and teachers Mitchell assembles a pretty convincing set of murder suspects.

The first thing to say about the case itself is how late in the novel the murder happens. We are nearly halfway through the book before the body shows up meaning that a lot of time is spent setting up the circumstances of the crime. I think this is not inherently a problem as the reader will be absorbing information, preparing for the investigation to begin, but it does mean that Dame Beatrice turns up very late in the story, compressing the investigation.

Given that Mitchell gives away her victim and murder method in the title, the reader will find few details of the crime scene surprising. In fact they will be given quite a bit of detail about who is responsible for the disappearance before the body ever appears. What this does however is establish some of the critical elements of the puzzle – that it will hinge upon the question of access both to the victim, some locked spaces and the weapon.

To be clear, there is no genius in the crime itself. This is a rather grubby, low-key murder that lacks any sparks of ingenuity or flair on the part of the killer. What makes solving this crime interesting is the challenge of piecing together events to make sense of how and why this crime could have happened. Solving the crime will require a logistical approach so it is a little odd that Mitchell continually reiterates that her sleuth is taking a psychological profiling approach to the case.

These interviews feel highly compressed and it is surprising just how quickly the plot moves after Dame Beatrice arrives and begins her investigation. While I often appreciate a direct approach in mystery stories, I think it can be a little jarring here as she seems to latch onto credible explanations in the story with surprising ease. She is in command from the moment she arrives and the case never seems to impact her or challenge her skills. In short, whatever other strengths this story has it is perhaps not the best introduction to this character.

Not that it’s really fair to blame Gladys Mitchell for that. I suppose when you reach the forty-seventh book in a series there is an expectation that the reader is likely already familiar with the character. Just be aware that if you don’t know the character prior to reading this you are unlikely to feel that you know her by the end.

Perhaps the most contentious aspect of the second half of the novel lies with the question of whether the mystery plays fair with the reader. I cannot describe that debate without spoiling the book but I can say that while I feel we are given enough information to identify the murderer, the moment of the reveal feels inherently disappointing and even if it didn’t cheat the reader, I think it may still feel as if it did.

Though I think that the ending feels a little underwhelming, I did quite enjoy A Javelin for Jonah. I found the setting to be compelling (and, at times, a little horrifying) and I think Mitchell’s characterizations are generally of a high standard. Though it is perhaps not the ideal introduction to her sleuth given her limited role in the story, parts of it are effective and interesting. Certainly I would be willing to give Mitchell another go at some point in the future…

Serpents in Eden edited by Martin Edwards

Serpents in Eden
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2016

Life commitments have caused me to need to find something I can dip in and out of at pretty short notice so I have been picking up more of these British Library Crime Classics anthologies.

Serpents in Eden is a collection of crimes set in the countryside though the setting is more critical in some stories than others where it is merely background. As always Martin Edwards has selected a diverse collection of stories on his theme and provides superb introductions, both to the collection as a whole and then to the authors who wrote the individual entries featured.

It is a pretty interesting collection though a little less well balanced than others published as part of this range. I particularly recommend the very short Clue in the Mustard which is quite amusing at points and Murder by Proxy which has a clever solution.

If this volume’s theme appeals to you then I’d suggest picking it up as though there are always a few misfires, most of the volume is pretty entertaining and does a good job of preventing variations on a theme.

On to the stories…

The Black Doctor by Arthur Conan Doyle

Or perhaps more accurately: the Doctor of Indeterminate Swarthy Ethnicity. This is the story of a country doctor who has established a successful practice in Lancashire. After many years of bachelorhood he finally proposes to a local woman but abruptly calls off the wedding. The narrative is structured around the trial of a man believed to have killed him.

There is no detective or sleuth to follow – this is more in the line of an unusual story being related but it is quite enjoyable, if a little slight.

Murder by Proxy by M. McDonnell Bodkin

An entertaining read, even if some aspects of the crime are easy to deduce. The story concerns a man who is found dead in his study having been shot in the back of the head. Paul Beck is called in to investigate the case by the man’s son who has become the principal suspect.

Forget about who did it – the killer’s identity is clear enough – as the focus here is really on how the deed was done. The solution is quite clever though Beck never really proved his case, rather the guilty party confesses. Still, it is fun and I’d be interested to see out some other Beck adventures.

The Fad of the Fisherman by G. K. Chesterton

This didn’t capture my imagination at all and so did not make for the best first impression for Chesterton’s work. A murder takes place on a remote island near the country home of Sir Hook. While the mystery didn’t grab me, this is one of the stronger entries in the collection for incorporating countryside elements.

The Genuine Tabard by E. C. Bentley

I quite enjoyed this story in which a pair of American tourists show our sleuth a historic tabard they purchased at a vicarage while driving through the country though it is a little slow in the telling. The scheme is worked out well but the explanation is a little too detailed.

The Gylston Slander by Herbert Jenkins

A solid if unremarkable story about a vicar receiving anonymous letters laced with innuendo about his daughter and the curate.

The Long Barrow by H. C. Bailey

A woman reports that she is being followed by someone everywhere she goes. At first Reggie Fortune seems disinterested but when she adds that someone is littering the path with dead animals he agrees it seems suspicious.

An interesting concept and approach but in my opinion the ideas are not well realized.

The Naturalist at Law by R. Austin Freeman

You would think that given my love of inverted mysteries I would have got around to trying an R. Austin Freeman already. Well, this isn’t an inverted mystery but it does whet my appetite for when I do so.

The story involves an apparent suicide of a man in a ditch. The inquest cannot reach a conclusion but Dr. Thorndyke is certain it is murder and conducts his own investigation. The question is why does Dr. Thorndyke think it is murder and how will he prove it. The answers are clever.

A Proper Mystery by Margery Allingham

This is a very short story set in a public house several weeks after a vegetable show was ruined when the produce is trampled by cattle. Tensions are still high in the village as some of the contenders suspect each other for orchestrating the disaster. The resolution of the story is quite charming, if expected.

Direct Evidence by Anthony Berkeley

A simple and dragged out case in which a man is accused of the murder of the woman he is having an affair with. The solution to why the suspect would have murdered her in plain sight of the village is obvious from the start and so the only question is what precise evidence will Sheringham be able to assemble to prove it. A disappointment.

Inquest by Lenora Wodehouse

A very different story that strikes a decidedly interesting and provocative note at its end. The narrator is travelling by train when he encounters a familiar face he is unable to place at first. It turns out that they recognize each other from an inquest into the death of a man who seems to have been murdered by his nephew.

The plot of the story is interesting enough to make this worth recommending but the tone of the ending is very different and there are some aspects of the solution that feel quite original. A highlight in the collection, though the countryside elements are minimal.

The Scarecrow by Ethel Lina White

A young woman escapes assassination and her would-be killer is locked away. Several years later he emerges from prison, placing the woman in danger. How will she and her friends evade the killer’s notice.

While this is an interesting premise and I did like some of the turns of phrase and details in the novel, it didn’t resonate with me as I had hoped. That is a shame because there is some excellent writing here.

Clue in the Mustard by Leo Bruce

A short but amusing story that sees Sergeant Beef solve his first murder (though you wouldn’t really know that if it weren’t mentioned in the preface to the story). An elderly woman is found dead in her garden to some surprise as she had seemed in relatively good health. While it appears like natural causes were responsible, Beef is able to demonstrate it was murder and explain how it was managed.

The method used is quite ingenious (and I am pleased to say that I guessed most of it) but the best part is Beef’s unusual reasoning for how he works it all out.

Our Pageant by Gladys Mitchell

The final story is incredibly short but also one of my favorites in the collection. It involves a village performance of a morris dance which has created some tensions between several of the men of the village. When someone ends up dead we are left wondering who may have been responsible.

It’s a clever little tale with a great reveal that is all the more impressive for being told in just a few pages.