St. Peter’s Finger by Gladys Mitchell

St. Peter’s Finger
Gladys Mitchell
Originally Published 1938
Mrs Bradley #8
Preceded by Come Away, Death
Followed by Printer’s Error

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

A Javelin for Jonah
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…