Speedy Death (Gladys Mitchell)

  • By Gladys Mitchell
  • First published: UK: Gollancz, 1929; US: Dial Press, 1929

Not pictured: Hangman’s Curfew. (The spine is being repaired.) That lot includes two signed copies!

Sixty-six detective stories, six more under a pseudonym, half-a-dozen historical novels, and a smattering of children’s novels. The great Gladys was certainly prolific. Over the next months and years, I will read and review of the works of this fantasist of genius. Welcome, then, to the first Mitchell of the Month!


For in spite of all temptations
To go in for cheap sensations
We insist upon a body in a bath –

Dorothy L. Sayers, Whose Body? (1923)

The body in the bath at Chayning Court, of course, is mildly sensational: Everard Mountjoy, a well-known explorer (presumed male), turns out after death to have been a woman. And what follows is even more sensational: night alarms, a homicidal lunatic, midnight attacks, hasty marriages, two attempted murders, another corpse in the bath, and a trial.

Speedy Death marked Gladys Mitchell’s début, although it was not her first book. Her first four novels (the first written in 1923) were all rejected; at last, Victor Gollancz published her maiden detective story, even though, Mitchell later remarked, “it had every fault under the sun”. In fact, it’s clever, entertaining, and full of good ideas – it shows remarkable promise – but it’s an atypical and even unrepresentative work. Mitchell’s second detective story, The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop, published later in 1929, is altogether stronger.

Nevertheless, Speedy Death was well received. The Spectator thought it “above the usual run of detective stories”, while Daily News called it an “extremely well-constructed story of murder and detection… The incidents of the book are quick and coherent, the dialogue life-like, and there is just the right amount of characterization to keep one’s interest alive in the persons of the book apart from the murders and their investigation.”

Speedy Death is perhaps Mitchell’s most conventional detective story in format: an orthodox country house mystery, with a party of family members and ill-assorted guests, servants running baths and buttering up the master, and amateur sleuths investigating bathroom stools and windows – all hallmarks of the light Twenties detective story, as practiced by, say, Anthony Berkeley. The country house is not Mitchell’s usual stamping ground; they are few and far between in her works. After 1930’s The Longer Bodies, we don’t set foot in one until Here Comes a Chopper (1946) – and then Mitchell gets away from the country house as soon as possible, and doesn’t return until almost the end of the book.

But Mitchell’s treatment is unconventional. She rejects the structure of the whodunnit. The mystery of Mountjoy’s death is rapidly cleared up, and the murderer is known by Chapter VIII. (Mitchell could seldom be bothered keeping the murderer a secret until the end.) And the murderer in turn ends up dead in the fatal bathtub.

Like so many detective stories of the Twenties, Speedy Death features an amateur sleuth, an inquisitive person who suspects that a fellow guest has been murdered. His name, of course, is Carstairs, and he is a naturalist; that combination of observation and science would make a good private inquiry agent.

But Carstairs is upstaged by the most out-of-place member of the house-party, the brilliant, witch-like psychiatrist Beatrice Bradley. (Mitchell was reading Freud at the time.)

“Little, old, shrivelled, clever, sarcastic sort of dame,” remarks one of the characters. “Would have been smelt out as a witch in a less tolerant age. I believe she is one. Good little sport, though. You’ll like her, I expect.”

Mrs. Bradley was dry without being shrivelled, and bird-like without being pretty. She reminded Alastair Bing, who was afraid of her, of the reconstruction of a pterodactyl he had once seen in a German museum.  There was the same inhuman malignity in her expression as in that of the defunct bird, and, like it, she had a cynical smirk about her mouth even when her face was in repose.  She possessed nasty, dry, claw-like hands, and her arms, yellow and curiously repulsive, suggested the plucked wings of a fowl.

Strange to say, her voice belied her appearance, for, instead of the birdlike twitter one might have expected to hear issuing from those beaked lips, her utterance was slow, mellifluous, and slightly drawled; unctuous, rich, and reminiscent of dark, smooth treacle.

Chapter 1

Poor Carstairs didn’t have a chance. “When I began to write Speedy Death I had no intention of making her my detective,” Mitchell remembered. “I’d got this man called Carstairs. Mrs. Bradley was just one of the house guests. But she sort of took over.”

And take over she did. Mrs. Bradley – cynical, yellow, reptilian – is mesmerizing, but at her least sympathetic here. She is principled, sympathetic to young lovers, but not yet the fairy godmother of later books, loved by little boys and Laura Gavin’s beloved Mrs. Croc. She’s not good; she’s not nice; she’s just right – she’s the Witch.

She speaks with relish of drowned bodies; hoots, screeches, and cackles (she hasn’t yet taken to poking people in the ribs with her bony forefinger); and disconcerts and terrifies nearly everyone around her.

Critics warmed to her at once. The author, wrote the Times Literary Supplement, “puts so much good stuff into Mrs. Bradley’s make-up that it is to be hoped that this is not to be that remarkable woman’s only appearance in a mystery story… It is a pity that Speedy Death has been published in an age which no longer requires its fiction to be provided with illustrations, as even a frontispiece of Mrs. Bradley would have enabled the reader to enjoy beholding her ‘reptilian grin’ or ‘saurian smile’.” The Daily News considered Mrs. Bradley “the prize piece of the story; and with her abrupt manner, her quick wit, her startling intuition, she is a great addition to the too-brief list of women interested in crime”.

Diana Rigg later played Mrs. Bradley in a late ’90s television series that bore little resemblance to the original books or character. Instead, I suggest:

Rosalie Crutchley.


Mary Morris

Siân Phillips

Mary Wimbush played Mrs. Bradley in a BBC radio series:

Warning: We will now discuss the novel’s themes; I will give away whodunnit, including the second murderer. It’s not a mystery, and was openly mentioned in reviews of and articles about Mitchell’s work, but some readers might wish to be surprised.


Nearly 50 years later, Edmund Crispin was flabbergasted: “Speedy Death has, in fact, a solution so astonishing that anyone lucky enough to lay hands on it will scarcely be able to believe what he reads.”

To wit: Mrs. Bradley commits the second murder, is tried, and then acquitted. Mrs. Bradley’s motive is wholly disinterested. The murderer is insane, dangerous, but uncertifiable; better a ‘speedy death’ – a humane killing – than public execution or life imprisonment.

Capital punishment was topical in 1929. In 1925, the National Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty was formed, and, over the next few years, held hundreds of meetings, distributed pamphlets, and stirred up the public to such a degree that in December 1928, the Abolitionist Bill was presented to the House of Commons. In October 1929, the abolitionists would have won the three-hour debate, had not the Liberal politician Sir Herbert Samuel, upheld by the Home Secretary, decided instead to set up a Select Committee on Capital Punishment to consider the matter. That Committee called in 1930 for the abolition of capital punishment – but England did not ban the death penalty for murder until 1965.

Mrs. Bradley is “not a vindictive woman”, and does not “believe in hanging” (The Saltmarsh Murders).  That “inhuman and disgraceful system”, she argues, is purely vindictive; its “dreadful period of waiting for the execution morning” tormented the condemned man.  Nevertheless, she held that “we must always have the moral courage to release from life those who are not fitted to bear life’s burdens”, which (worryingly) amounted to the extermination of the insane and “the sterilisation of the mentally unsound” (The Echoing Strangers; When Last I Died). 

All human beings, Mrs. Bradley remarks in Speedy Death, are potential killers.

“We are all murderers, my friend,” said Mrs. Bradley lugubriously.  “Some in deed and some in thought.  That’s the only difference, though.”

“Rather a considerable difference,” said Carstairs, putting into his tone a lightness which he was very far from feeling.

“Morally, there is no difference at all,” said Mrs. Bradley more briskly.  “Some have the courage of their convictions.  Others have not.  That is all.”

In later books, she argues that all murderers are temporarily mad. “Killing is not a sane reaction to the circumstances of life” (The Rising of the Moon). (She excepts herself: “And my outrageous sanity is in itself a kind of mental defect, I sometimes think.” – Butcher’s Shop.) But “murder is a general heading for a whole list of actions, most of which ought to be judged merely as misdemeanours.  The second division ought to be the special preserve of murderers.” At the time, Home Office witnesses argued: “A very large number of murderers are, in other respects, perfectly decent people, and a very large proportion of them, if they were let out, would be very unlikely to commit any other murder or any other crime.  They are really a class by themselves; they are quite different from the ordinary criminal, as a rule.”

Speedy Death presents two sorts of murderers: the mad, primitive kind, and the sane sort who has “the courage of their convictions”. The latter sort, Mitchell suggests, should not be executed, because they are essentially reasonable, rational and redeemable, their murders are abnormal; but sometimes killing can be necessary to prevent further murders or when the murderer is irredeemable.

Eleanor Bing becomes engaged to the explorer Mountjoy; her sexual passion can neither be requited nor returned, and so poor Eleanor finds it “torture … to be with my dear Everard as much as I am, and to know that he has no desire to caress me. One should be content, I suppose … with his beautiful platonic love, but sometimes strange desires come into my mind.” Discovering Mountjoy is really a woman, Eleanor’s love turns to murderous hatred, “the intense, bitter and never-ending hatred of one whose finest feelings, whose noblest emotions had been played with, mocked at, scorned, derided, lacerated”. The “shame” of her predicament “will make the poor girl a laughing-stock over the whole country”. Eleanor is literally madly in love with Bertie Philipson; she attacks all those whom she sees as rivals. Nevertheless, although Eleanor is dangerous and ‘mad’, she is not certifiable.

“She’s only dangerous when anybody takes a liking to Bertie Philipson,” Mrs. Bradley remarks. “And so it will go on until she gets herself hanged for murder.  It’s an awful – an impossible situation!”

This is the sort of murderer whom Sir John Anderson (in the Death Penalty Enquiry) called “a possible danger to society”: “people who cannot be medically certified insane but are nevertheless obviously abnormal…  People of that type are usually people who would be executed.”

Mrs. Bradley’s solution is to remove Eleanor. In fact, Mrs. Bradley argues, Eleanor’s death is not murder, but rather “what one might term a logical elimination of unnecessary, and, in fact, dangerous matter”.  Unless Eleanor is stopped, she will commit more murders and then either be hanged or be murdered by her brother, Garde, or by Bertie Philipson. These “rather unintelligent men” would surely get themselves hanged, but Mrs. Bradley is “rather an intelligent woman”, and so she can get away with murder.

Eleanor is a threat to society, but Mrs. Bradley is an asset: eminently sane, ethical, humane, and responsible. Nevertheless, her decision may seem high-handed. Certainly, Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan (The Lady Investigates, 1981) thought Speedy Death was “something of a false start for Mrs. Bradley. The detective’s method and manner are far more successful in The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop, when she is under no obligation to bear the knife herself.” In fact, Mitchell herself seems to have had doubts about Mrs. Bradley’s drastic action.  Originally, the psychoanalyst “had enjoyed being arrested.  It was a new experience, and she had made special note of her psychological reactions to it, and had planned to incorporate them in her next book”. In Dead Men’s Morris (1936), however, Mrs. Bradley tells her young nephew that the experience “wasn’t pleasant” – and there are few references to Mitchell’s first novel in the rest of her corpus, as Mrs. Bradley mellows. But her compassion and unorthodox sense of justice continue throughout her long career.

Both writer and detective distinguish between murder and execution.  Murder “is a sin, rather than a crime, and it is a point of view rather than either” (Merlin’s Furlong).  Much depends on the motives for which the crime was committed.  As Craig and Cadogan point out, those “whose motives will bear examination” – whether altruistic murderers who benefit society by the removal of an unpleasant individual, or somehow sympathetic ones – often go free. (So, too, do some unsympathetic murderers.) Similarly, those whose “guilt is only relative” – manslaughterers and cat’s-paws – are not punished. In the very late Nest of Vipers, one victim is the leader of a witchcraft cult that kidnaps and sacrifices virgins; he is murdered to save a maiden in distress.

“In my book … no  murderer is a sane person,” Dame Beatrice (as Mrs Bradley has become) remarks.

“That’s too sweeping altogether, Dame Beatrice.  Surely there might be the best of reasons why certain people should not go on living.”

“Those people would not be murdered; they would be executed.”

“The result would be the same.  I think you’re splitting hairs.”

“So long as I do not split heads, I am still on the right side of the law.”

Justice “has the two faces of Janus, one moral, the other legal”, and Dame Beatrice “may need to subvert her course in one or other of these respects”. The law may frown on murder, but murder may be the necessary action, and, as such, should go unpunished. Or, as Craig and Cadogan say:

The moral schema can still accommodate an act of murder which goes unpunished: this is due solely to the detective’s heroic disregard for the conventional viewpoint.  She has the courage not to insist on convictions.

Mitchell believed there were worse crimes than murder. Mrs. Bradley places murder “below rape, and above grand larceny” (Tom Brown’s Body).  The former is a crime against the person, while the latter is only a crime against property.  (The suspect to whom she is talking, incidentally, agrees with Mrs. Bradley’s view: “Real murder is the most terrible of crimes … but there is such a thing as essential elimination.”)  In fact, Mrs Bradley remarks: “Few murders, in my opinion (unless they are procured by the use of poison), compare for sheer wickedness and heartless exploitation with blackmail, gun-running and dope-peddling” (Gory Dew).  Poisoning is the exception, because it is cold-blooded, premeditated, and likely to be committed for purely selfish reasons (gain or fear).  In fact, the Capital Punishment Report distinguished between premeditated murders by poison and the more normal unpremeditated murder as “the result of sudden impulse or over-mastering passion”.  Mitchell particularly loathed blackmail, which she considered infinitely worse than murder, and, with murder, “about the last thing [she] would think of committing”.  In The Echoing Strangers, Mrs. Bradley explains:

“The majority of murders do at least take place quickly, but the blackmailer is a slow torturer…

“Murder, unfortunately, is a human crime and a dreadful one, but torture is the work of devils.”

She then causes a blackmailer to die of a heart attack.

Speedy Death is also a feminist text. Mrs. Bradley is an emancipated, twice-married woman of genius (which may be why the BBC miscast Diana Rigg, the Sixties’ Emma Peel, as the detective); the murderess, Eleanor Bing, is a sexually repressed spinster. She is “emotionally starved”; “plump, placid, drab, self-possessed, and much too freezingly well-bred to achieve popularity”. Her father is to blame; Eleanor has been “housekeeper and secretary” to this pompous, petty patriarch for 17 years, “a slave to her father’s house and her father’s hobby”. When Eleanor is half-drowned in a bathtub, Bing’s chief concern is who will help him write his book on The Roman Antiquities of Dorset.

Other Mitchell obsessions appear: archaeology (Alastair Bing is writing a book on the Antiquities of Dorset); Scottish second sight; teaching (Mrs. Bradley taught children); progressive social views (Mrs. Bradley is well versed in arguments for birth control).

Some inconsistencies, too: does Bing dislike Mountjoy, or is he an “old friend”? And how could Mrs. Bradley have poisoned the coffee? Carstairs says she poisoned it in her room, but Pamela Storbin observed all her actions.


2001 review

With the appearance of Speedy Death in 1929, the face of crime fiction was changed forever. Over the fifty-five years between its publication and that of The Crozier Pharaohs in 1984, readers were treated to sixty-six bizarre and funny novels, in which insane murderers committed their crimes against a background of water nymphs, moving stones, ghosts, witchcraft, devils, Greek gods, obscure customs, sexually repressed spinsters, criminal lunatics, and dismembered corpses. To cope with these, a strong detective is needed — and Mitchell introduces the most memorable detective of all time in this book: Mrs. Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, a sinister pterodactyl-like psycho-analyst with the smile of a Cheshire Cat, and the morals of a shark—cynical, contemptuous, witty, shrieking, cackling, unorthodox, unconventional, genius, in what is undoubtedly the best debut a detective ever achieved—although it seems Mitchell intended the naturalist Carstairs to be her detective (or a very intelligent Watson? — although Laura Menzies is highly intelligent).

The story is a comedy-of-manners with Victorian melodrama thrown in; as one of the characters comments, some of the events “sounded more like the meaty bit out of a shilling shocker to me”. The ingredients include transvestism (‘Rather bad luck to find out that the chap you are engaged to is a woman, what?’) and lesbianism, pathological jealousy, revenant corpses, justified murder (or, as Mrs. Bradley herself puts it, ‘a logical elimination of unnecessary, and, in fact, dangerous matter…’), midnight attacks and hasty marriages, and fleeting references to birth-control, marking this as a very progressive novel. The detection is in-depth, using interesting material and psychological clues — the murderer’s obsession with clocks is particularly fascinating. Characterisation and dialogue are both excellent — wonderful Mrs. Bradley, but the high-light of the novel is undoubtedly the climactic trial.  It is a pleasure to see Mrs. Bradley’s enjoyment at being arrested — but, then, the entire novel is a pleasure.


Blurb

The famous explorer is unpardonably late for dinner, and they start without him.  Uneasiness grows, and they go upstairs to find out.  He is discovered dead in the bath and – even more horrible – the body is that of a woman…

Contemporary reviews

Spectator (6th July 1929): Speedy Death is above the usual run of detective stories.  The heroine, or villainess, is a psycho-analyst, and we think Miss Mitchell must be almost the first champion in fiction of this much-abused class.  The whole book, in fact, turns upon the obsession of a young woman whose natural desires have been suppressed, and on their effect on her actions.  Though, therefore, the plot is no more life like than that of any other detective story, it has been found possible to provide a new type of clue for the reader, though the police are as obstinate as ever, and to dispense again with that mechanisation of criminal life which has become so prevalent in the detective novel today.

Times Literary Supplement (11th July 1929): It is a pity that Speedy Death has been published in an age which no longer requires its fiction to be provided with illustrations, as even a frontispiece of Mrs. Bradley would have enabled the reader to enjoy beholding her “reptilian grin” or “saurian smile”.  She is a psycho-analyst, and knows her job.  Eleanor, so quiet and reserved to the world at large, has quite another character in Mrs. Bradley’s observant eyes, and the little woman positively enjoys the sensations which she is able to experience and catalogue while being arrested and tried for murder.  The author introduces several surprises before she escorts Mrs. Bradley into court and out again, without any legal stain upon her penetrating character.  She kills the famous explorer in a bath, and permits a surprised world to marvel at the fact that he is a she and has apparently been quite unaccountably murdered.  Then she causes Eleanor to be found apparently dead in the same fatal bath, and even more surprisingly brings her back to an existence which the reader will instinctively feel is only necessary as a subject-matter for Mrs. Bradley’s investigations and experiments, for Eleanor’s character, although of interest to a psycho-analyst, is almost a nuisance to some very inoffensive people, and is probably the cause of her brother’s odd behaviour.  Lastly she makes hay with all the preconceived notions of how a person accused of murder ought to feel and behave, and, generally, puts so much good stuff into Mrs. Bradley’s make-up that it is to be hoped that this is not to be that remarkable woman’s only appearance in a mystery story…

Daily News: Extremely well constructed story of murder and detection…Mrs. Bradley is the prize piece of the story; and with her abrupt manner, her quick wit, her startling intuition, she is a great addition to the too-brief list of women interested in crime…The incidents of the book are quick and coherent, the dialogue life-like, and there is just the right amount of characterization to keep one’s interest alive in the persons of the book apart from the murders and their investigation.


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