First published: UK, Michael Joseph, 1963
Adders on the Heath is set in the New Forest. A young man named Richardson is spending a few days under canvas, awaiting the arrival of a friend, before transferring to an hotel. One night he returns to camp to find a dead man in his tent and immediately telephones the police. But when they arrive the original body—that of a man Richardson knew and with whom he had quarrelled—has been exchanged for the body of a man he did not know. The first body reappears in a wood and suspicion for both deaths falls upon Richardson.
Dame Beatrice LeStrange Bradley enters, and all her wits and intuition are required to probe and elucidate the mystery, and to save a man having to stand trial for the double murder.
Adders on the Heath is not good Mitchell; indeed, it is, like too many of her books written at this time, self-indulgent, badly plotted, and padded to the gills. Although the book deals with leisure activities (riding and camping in particular), that is no excuse for the pace of the book to be so leisurely — especially when the book could be written as a short story and still keep the same amount of plot and detection.
It is, like other of Mitchell’s books (in particular those of the 1970s), a story in which the setting came first, and the plot was desperately plucked out of nowhere to accommodate the setting. The New Forest, a place of “glades and groves, …beeches and oaks, …woodland rides and blindingly dazzling contrasts of shade and sun”, may lend itself well to a detective story (as, for example, in the 1968 novel Three Quick and Five Dead), but not here. Having endured an impenetrable and off-putting opening, demonstrating the author’s misplaced enthusiasm for slang, the reader is presented with Mitchell’s (here misplaced) enthusiasm for nature.
An absurdly chivalrous and neurotic young man named Richardson, a runner and teacher, is camping on Medley Heath in order to observe and photograph the local fauna. In this section of the book, there is neither character interest nor character development, and this reader found himself losing concentration several times, and the book itself a struggle to read. On returning one night to his tent Richardson finds the corpse of A.B. Colnbrook, a man with whom he had quarrelled (although the full story of the quarrel is annoyingly and absurdly delayed). When he returns with the police, he suffers a “complete and almost devastating shock”, for Colnbrook’s body has vanished; in its place, a second corpse. Thankfully, Richardson’s closest friend is Denis Bradley, Dame Beatrice’s nephew. In a scene reminiscent of the earlier (and far superior) The Dancing Druids, the two young men search for proof of Richardson’s story — and find Colnbrook’s corpse in the woods. With police suspicion falling on Richardson, a Dame Beatrice so mild as to be colourless enters the fray, giving vent to an “eldritch cackle” or two as she sets about the business of sleuthing in no creditable fashion, plodding from here to there as she serially interviews everybody she encounters.
As a detective story, the book is quite unusually poor: at the beginning of Chapter Twelve, there are no suspects; at the end of the chapter it is quite clear who the murderers are. Since the guilt is seen immediately after Dame Beatrice has interviewed the suspects, the reader consequently has nothing to do. The plot itself is commonplace and uninteresting, a rehash of Twelve Horses and the Hangman’s Noose, which wasn’t Mitchell’s finest hour either. The preposterous idea of transmitting secret codes via horses does not hold water for an instant; and it is never convincingly explained why the corpses should have been exchanged, nor even why such deliberate attention should have been brought to them.
As story, it is a classic example of padding. Mitchell was always a digressive author, but in most cases she still kept a firm grip on her plot. Here she does not. The typical Mitchell settings of school and outdoors do not shine, one being juvenile and puerile, the other being dull and lifeless. Characterisation of the non-regulars is close to non-existent: the murderers are names, not identities, and she does not bother to give the other members of the cast names: we have The Headmaster (who communicates by raising his eyebrows at people) and we have The Superintendent. This is a return to the territory of Sunset Over Soho, where two of the principal characters are called The Welfare Officer and The Supervising Officer. Humour is over-done: although the exchanges between Richardson and Denis and between Dame Beatrice and Laura Gavin are quite amusing to begin with, they lose impact as the story moves on, for there is nothing solid against which to contrast them; a case in point is Chapter 7, which consists entirely of amusing yet utterly pointless conversation between Dame Beatrice, Laura Gavin, Richardson and Denis Bradley.
Easily the best part of the book — and the most entertaining — is the dialogue between Laura’s son Hamish and the hotel porter Barney. This lasts less than two pages. It is mainly due to the humour with which Mitchell depicts Hamish’s relations with his mother and her employer that the book’s ending is remotely enjoyable (despite the attempt to hijack it by throwing in the obnoxiously slanging athletes on the last page), since by then the reader has come to the conclusion that the book is as slender and as “amusing” as late Michael Innes.