First published: UK, Michael Joseph, 1977
A.C. Swinburne, né Swineborn, was a man who started life off on the wrong foot—and it stayed that way. Born of a domineering and ambitious mother and a weak-willed, work-shy father, he is to some extent the victim of his heredity. But given every chance in late life, he remains a criminal and becomes a suspected murderer.
Fault in the Structure opens in the grounds of Abbesses College, a women’s college in an old and famous university. The body of a woman is found in the cloisters. The murder still unsolved, the scene of the story changes to a small town on the borders of the New Forest, where the members of the local dramatic and operatic society are preparing for a production of ‘The Beggar’s Opera’.
Unfalteringly, and with her usual wry humour, Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley combines forces with her secretary, the Mrs. Peachum of the opera, to solve the mystery which then follows: that of Swinburne’s own rather spectacular death at the conclusion of John Gay’s operatic satire.
The criminal’s identity is known from the beginning, but this is one of Mitchell’s best books of the 1970s. The plot changes both locale and time. The first part is set in a university, the second concerns amateur theatricals in the neighbourhood of Wandles Parva. The murderer, the homicidal poet T.E. Lawrence, is one of Mitchell’s nastiest killers and a fascinating portrait. While most late Mitchells are set around travelling groups, the plot focusses on the poet and his murders. The first three murders are those of the poet’s guardian (heart failure); the victim’s wife, buried in the College basement; and a local gossip bludgeoned to death (apparently Dame Beatrice doesn’t know of this one, as no reference is made to it later on). The second half of the book deals with the murderer’s attempts to assassinate Dame Beatrice, and his eventual comeuppance. Elements of the plot recall Faintley Speaking and Death at the Opera.
The Times (H.R.F. Keating, 29th September 1977):
Dame Beatrice does it again, chiefly amid amateur dramatics at their most laughably horrendous. The murder story as it used to be.
Observer (Maurice Richardson):
Absorbing chronicle of congenital delinquent who, despite promising academic career, can’t stop swindling and murdering. By neat stroke of poetic justice he gets strung up when playing MacHeath in ‘The Beggar’s Opera’. Mrs. Bradley and her beloved Laura quack in and out of women’s colleges like a Norn chorus. Very satisfying; but how about giving us one about Mrs. Bradley in her own student days?