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.