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‚Äôs 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.