First published: UK, Michael Joseph, 1947
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.
‘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: SPOILER 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.
John O’London’s Weekly (Evelyn Banks, 3rd 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, 5th 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, 8th 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., 27th 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”.