Death and the Maiden (Gladys Mitchell)

  • By Gladys Mitchell
  • First published: UK: Michael Joseph, 1947; US: Rue Morgue Press, 2009
  • Availability: Vintage Press

I didn’t think much of the book, but I did love Winchester so.

Its author

I once called Death and the Maiden the quintessential Gladys Mitchell, and placed it in her top half-dozen books. It features Laura Menzies, plenty of outdoors action, an outré situation, an authentic location, and a rather rambling plot. In fact, I suspect my championing it led to its reprint by two different publishers. But I may have been wrong.

This is the one with the naiad in Winchester (memorably depicted on the cover). A newspaper publishes a letter about a water-nymph in the River Itchen – a silly season story, no doubt. But it interests Edris Tidson, a Tenerifean banana-grower who has come to England to live off his cousin, Priscilla Carmody. Mr. Tidson and his half-Greek wife, Crete, Miss Carmody and her sulky niece, Connie, visit Winchester to investigate. If nothing else, Miss Carmody hopes, it will be a pleasant holiday. Soon after they arrive, a small boy is found drowned in the river. Why did Mr. Tidson return wet that night, his hands scratched? Why did he throw away a boy’s sandal? Fortunately, Miss Carmody called in Mrs. Bradley to vet Mr. Tidson’s sanity.

Death and the Maiden is often beautifully, elegantly, wittily written. It is Mitchell’s tribute to the cathedral city, once the most important town in England. Judging from photos, Winchester seems an attractive place, and Laura and her friend Kitty spend a morning “in ecstatic exploration” of the Cathedral. (Mrs. Bradley later pokes around the mortuary chests, the bones disturbed by the Puritans.)

Mitchell dedicated the novel to her companion Winifred Blazey and to the River Itchen. Her descriptions of its water-meadows are among her most lyrical writing:

  • The water-meadows, faintly shrouded, were as beautiful as the fields of the cloths of heaven, and the sound of waters was everywhere. The waters themselves, blue-grey, full-flood, deep-pooled, clear, swirling and haunted with deep weed, furtive fish and the legendary freshness of cress, divided yet held the landscape. (Ch. XI, p. 123)
  • The risen sun flung gold upon the shallows of the water, but the deep pool kept its shadow and greenish gloom. Larks ascended. The sky began to deepen and grow nearer. It was by this time intensely blue, and gave promise of the finest day of the summer. A breeze, very soon to die away and give place to intense and vital warmth, began to stir among the leaves of the willows, and the world was again composed of water, the air and the sun, as it had been at the time of Creation. (Ch. XI, pp. 126–27)
  • Thick cresses, darkly, succulently green, the water-mint, the purple loosestrife, seemed a fitting border to the grey-bright floods that were said to house the naiad. The lance-leaved, saw-toothed hemp agrimony, crowding its corymbs at the head of its three-foot stems, was dwarfed by the mighty hogweed, coarse and hairy. The handsome, purple-tinged angelica, with hollow stem, set off and did not diminish the water-level charm of the wild forget-me-not, still blooming at the end of its season. Dark crimson self-heal, square-stemmed, long-lipped (the carpenter’s herb, the curative Prunella), reared above purple-edged bracts its dimorphic flowers. (Ch. XVIII, pp. 207–08)

The book is rich in inspired scenes, lovely, quotable passages, and amusing reflections.

  • The image of Mr. Tidson as Job among his blackened bananas and typhoons (Ch. IV)
  • Mr. Tidson thinking of repressed spinsters (Ch. VI)
  • The waiter Thomas, his rich, Doric accent, and his penchant for solving crosswords wrong
  • The ghost of the squeaking nun, and the episode of the four black eyes
  • The behaviour of poltergeists
  • Mrs. Bradley writing an article on the neuroses of St. Simon Stylites (“An unprofitable and idiotic task which gave her considerable enjoyment, for contemplation of the most extraordinary and complicated psychological make-up of the most anti-social of the saints had always been to her a most fascinating way of wasting time” – Ch. XII)
  • “Freud thinks… There is no past tense in the conjugation of genius, especially when it has left us whatever of itself can be conveyed by the printed page; and there is no past tense in heaven, which Freud undoubtedly inherits.” (Ch. XV)
  • Mrs. Bradley tells the story of her ancestress who was a witch (Ch. XV)
  • And Laura Menzies becomes engaged (rather to her irritation) to Inspector Gavin

Mrs. Bradley looks for secret passages, throws a nailbrush at a ghost, and clambers over hotel rooves. Laura swims nude in the river (probably to Philip Larkin’s lascivious delight), and hurls Mr. Tidson into it to see if he can swim. Alice Boorman (one of Laura’s Musketeers) trails suspects while a body is pushed down a slope.

Despite dead dogs and half-drowned women, it feels at times that the story is treading water. Maiden has one of the smallest casts of any of Mitchell’s novels – only four suspects – but it’s also her longest novel of the 1940s, by some margin (80 pages longer than Sunset Over Soho, 70 than The Worsted Viper, 60 than When Last I Died and My Father Sleeps). The story doesn’t justify the length, particularly since it’s apparent from early on who the murderer is.

But the plot is also bewildering, Mitchell at her most cluttered and rambling. Patricia Craig (Times Literary Supplement, 1980) considered Death and the Maiden (and Hangman’s Curfew) “probably the most extreme examples of the author’s tendency to resort too blatantly to the bizarre and the inconsequential”:

There was a period in the 1940s when contrivance, absurdity, and carelessness supervened.  Instead of the effective combination of precision and intricacy, we find gratuitous convolution.  Plots thicken to the point of impenetrability.

Similarly, Barry Pike considered Death and the Maiden (1947) “a distinct success and thoroughly entertaining, and yet it is possible to read it without being entirely sure of the motive for the crime”.

So much of Miss Mitchell’s dialogue is allusive and inconclusive, and so many of her characters lay false trails in conversation, from the delicate half-truth to the lie direct, that the reader is sometimes in danger of not knowing what he is to believe, and is left floundering, still vague, even at the end, about details of the action and its motivation.

As m’colleague Jason discusses, the plot is “abstruse and illogical”, with too many subplots and bizarre details that are poorly explained. It is difficult to fit the events together; characters’ actions and motivations are obscure. Why, for instance, does a character hide the false clues in the tramp’s lair after they saw it searched? By throwing a boot into the river, how did the Tidsons hope to make people infer that the dog had been killed by a sadistic lunatic? Why (as Jason points out) was Crete Tidson naked when drowned, why were her clothes hidden in the river, and why was she placed in the river? And I’m not sure why the murders were committed. Is it practice makes perfect? Is it wounded vanity? The story is waterlogged.

But perhaps reading the book in bed while recovering from the COVID vaccine, fatigued and fluey, might not have been the best time to join Mrs. Bradley and friends on a naiad-hunt. Below, you’ll find a more enthusiastic review, written nearly 20 years ago. Maybe I’ll enjoy it more, in a decade or so.


2002 review

‘This seems the place for naiads. It certainly isn’t the spot for two murders, is it? I do think Cathedral cities, and these water-meadows, ought to be immune from horrors, and policemen, and nasty little brutes like Tidson.’

 ‘…These murders are not native to the place. They have been planted here by the devil, or some of his agents.’

The blurb of Death and the Maiden calls the plot an “astonishing tangle of crime”—a description justified by the events of one of Gladys Mitchell’s half-dozen masterpieces, a tale at once witty, imaginative, original, and full of incident. Yet this complexity — a veritable symphony of complexity — seems neither cluttered nor convoluted, such is the considerable skill with which the author unwinds her yarn.

The setting is the cathedral city of Winchester, where a naiad has been seen in the River Itchen (and is later heard to quote The Frogs of Aristophanes — sheer Mitchellian genius), “which ordinarily offered a habitat to nothing more sinister than a pike, more beautiful than the grayling or more intelligent than the brown trout”, a locale which Mitchell evokes with her customary lyrical grace — and, “in a city which harbours a naiad in a chalk stream, anything may happen”. Edris Tidson, a retired banana-grower recently arrived from the Canaries with his beautiful half-Greek wife Crete, and staying with his cousin Priscilla Carmody and her niece Connie (much to their discomfort, for Tidson is by way of being a parasite), is much attracted by the idea of the naiad, and moves to the Domus Hotel, Miss Carmody paying the bills for the four of them. The characterisation of the four suspects is particularly sharp, although, as Mrs. Bradley reflects, “the Carmody household, comprising, as it did, the fantastic Mr. Tidson, the astoundingly beautiful Crete, the discontented Connie and her troubled, respectable aunt, appeared to have something more in common with the surreal than with the real”.

Mrs. Bradley is asked by Miss Carmody to vet Tidson, whom she believes is mad, and whom the natives of the Canaries feared as having the evil eye — and finds herself in particularly strange territory, even by Mitchell’s standards. Although Tidson is clinically sane (if undeniably eccentric), Mrs. Bradley is suspicious of Tidson’s interest in the naiad, feeling that “a middle-aged gentleman of slightly eccentric mentality could cause a naiad to cover a progressive multiplicity of actions, including quite a number of sins. It was a fascinating field of surmise, in fact, to work out what sins in particular the naiad could help to screen”. Connie Carmody is disturbed during the night by the squeaking ghost of a nun, which Mrs. Bradley feels may have been created for human reasons (the hotel porter, Thomas, a masterpiece of comic invention, argues that “hotels are not made to be haunted. The guests, maybe, couldna thole it. Ghaisties wadna come whaur they werena welcome”), and which she believes may have entered Connie’s room through that Mitchell trademark, the secret passage.

A small boy is found dead by the river, perhaps drowned by the naiad, perhaps (as the police believe) murdered by one Potter, who found the body, and with whose foster mother he was believed to be having an affair. Miss Carmody differs, however, and, believing Tidson to be guilty of the crime, asks Mrs. Bradley to begin her enquiries, which she does in an absolutely superb way, disquieting suspects left right and centre, and giving vent to her customary eldritch cackle: “not a mirthful sound, and Laura, who had learnt to regard it as a war-cry, looked at her rather in the manner of stout Cortez regarding the Pacific”. Laura Menzies (who meets and becomes engaged to Det. Insp. Gavin, disguised for most of the story as an angler) and her two friends, Alice Boorman (who discovers a second dead boy) and Kitty Trevelyan, ably help her, and, for once, the Three Musketeers are an integral part of the story and not dragged in for reasons of sentimentality. As her investigations proceed, Mrs. Bradley finds herself “more and more interested in the strange little man (Tidson). His potentialities, she felt, were infinite. She longed to ask him, point-blank, whether or not he were a murderer, but she felt that this would ruin their friendly relationship and defeat the object of the question, which was, quite simply and unequivocally, to find out the answer.” Her suspicions are justified. Tidson’s guilt is suspected early on, and stated halfway through; this is one of those stories where the detective interest lies in piecing together motive (Mitchell juggling several possibilities, including practice makes perfect, gain, and revenge in the air) and method, and in finding proof – of which there is plenty of psychological proof, but “no material proof whatsoever”, despite a plethora of sandals, black eyes (a brilliant touch, this), rafts, wills, illegitimacy, secret passages, and finger-prints. The problem is further complicated by the suspicious behaviour of other characters, especially Connie Carmody.

The ultimate solution to the mystery is particularly ingenious: a devilishly subtle motive relying on bluff, double-bluff and triple-bluff. Although all the clues to the mystery are provided, it will be an intelligent reader who finds the true solution before Mrs. Bradley chooses to reveal it. Although every act is attributable by the end, and the solution quite logical, there are a few points improperly explained: why was the evidence planted when the individual in question knew Mrs. Bradley had already searched the hole? How did the Tidsons hope to make people infer that the dog had been killed by a sadistic lunatic by throwing a boot into the river? Why (and Jason Hall has already pointed this out in his excellent review) was Crete Tidson naked when drowned, why were her clothes hidden in the river, and why was she placed in the river? There are a few minor signs of carelessness: the boy’s age in the paper on pp. 40 and 43; Connie’s whereabouts on pp. 75 and 76; and the victim’s name changing from Hugh to John Biggin.


Blurb (UK)

The great detectives of fiction are men of varied and brilliant gifts—Chief Inspector Alleyn, Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, Albert Campion and their peers—but in this glittering company Gladys Mitchell’s famous Mrs. Bradley, ‘the greatest of women detectives’ as she has been called, is well able to hold her own.  ‘Mrs. Bradley is a lovely ancient dame,’ wrote John O’London’s Weekly, reviewing one of her recent cases, ‘bouncing happily through crime with a will and a wit as deadly as a snake’s tongue.’

In Miss Mitchell’s new story, Mrs. Bradley is at the top of her form—as she certainly needed to be in the astonishing tangle of crime which confronted her when an urgent summons from an old friend took her to the Domus Hotel at Winchester.  It all began with a report of a water nymph alleged to have been seen in the waters of the Itchen—a fantastic tale, but no more fantastic than the murder of two boys and the whole fantastic chain of crime which sprang from it, and far from enough to defeat the unerring acumen of Mrs. Lestrange Bradley.


Contemporary reviews

John O’London’s Weekly (Evelyn Banks, 3 October 1947): In Death and the Maiden, by Gladys Mitchell, reports of a water-sprite in the River Itchen, followed by the apparently motiveless murder of two small boys, lure the redoubtable Mrs. Bradley to Winchester.  Here, involved with an odd family party, she works her way steadily through an intricate plot to emerge victoriously with a neat solution.  Mrs. Bradley has had better assignments in the past, but the liveliness of the characters, and particularly of the three ex-students who assist her, are ample compensation for an over-elaborate plot.

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 5 October 1947): Miss Gladys Mitchell has been taking the water again.  For this versatile scholar “the glassy cool translucent wave” has a dangerous fascination.  It engenders an obscurantist mood, a dream-like climate that scarcely suits the whodunnit.  In Death and the Maiden Miss Mitchell investigates drownings in the Itchen accompanied by rumours of a water nymph.  Circle of suspects is very tight, very nicely characterised.  Miss Mitchell achieves miracles of mystification but I wish she would keep away from the water.

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 8 November 1947): Death and the Maiden is not so surrealist as many of its predecessors, and so may disappoint some of Miss Mitchell’s admirers.  In compensation, there is a vestigial plot; two little boys are found murdered; and Mrs. Bradley is in splendid form, scouring the country round Winchester for naiads.  For sheer unbridled imagination Miss Mitchell is unrivalled in the detective field.  May she long remain so.

Sydney Morning Herald (J.J.Q., 27 December 1947): Death and the Maiden is one of Mrs. Bradley’s less finished cases.  She does not manage to convict the criminal nor to save any of the victims.

She is consulted on the mental condition of a libidinous old banana planter, who with his beautiful half-Greek wife is troubling the comfortable orderly life of his cousin, Miss Carmody, and her 19-year-old niece.

He drags the whole troupe to Winchester, following a Press report that a naiad or water-sprite has been seen in the Itchin, and within a fortnight of their arrival, two boys are found murdered in the shallows of the river. There is chimney climbing and ghost harrying by Mrs. Bradley, river frolics by Laura and her girl friends, delightful descriptions of water-meadows, but the book straggles, in spite of pleasant writing.  It ends as Laura, who is to marry the baffled man from the Yard, reads of the final tragedy in Teneriffe, thankful that it will not poison her memories of Winchester: “the grey cathedral, the hills and the lovely darkening reaches of the river…the smooth hard rush of the water…the swans like galleons for beauty…a solitary trout in a small deep pool, as he anchored himself against the run of the stream”.

4 thoughts on “Death and the Maiden (Gladys Mitchell)

      1. I like brilliant eccentrics too. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about Mrs Bradley that rubs me up the wrong way.

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  1. Mrs Bradley is the chief – sometimes only – reason to read Gladys Mitchell.
    It’s interesting how often she has characters like Thomas just so she can depict an accent and how often illegitimacy and miscegenation crop up in the characters. pasts, often for no apparent reason.

    Like

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