First published: UK, Michael Joseph, 1946
“My new detective story,” writes Miss Mitchell, with an almost blood-curdling gaiety somewhat reminiscent of Mrs. Bradley, “is about a headless corpse. I have called it Here Comes a Chopper (Here Comes a Candle to Light You to Bed: Here Comes a Chopper to Chop off your Head). The scene is set in Surrey and Mrs. Bradley comes into the story more than she did in The Rising of the Moon.” We suggest that that is little more than any Gladys Mitchell fan should require to know before laying all other occupations aside and reading it. Britannia Of Eve, in a review of The Rising of the Moon, said: “Another Gladys Mitchell is always a literary event—and an eventful piece of literature.”
‘It’s all horribly mad, and yet horribly sane, too.’
A good recovery from the impenetrable books of the previous three years, Here Comes a Chopper is one of Mitchell’s few attempts at the country-house genre — and quite a successful one. The narrative is straight-forward and competent, every chapter advances the plot and contains a clue, but, at the same time, it is a daft comedy-of-manners. The list of characters includes two mad-women, as well as a train-driver with ‘the Gift’; the splendid dialogue is often rather ghoulish, yet always with a great deal of humour:
‘I say, Great-Aunt Bradley!” (George, a boy, not the chauffeur) exclaimed. ‘Immense excitement! Mr. Lingfield has been discovered ina quarry, and someone has cut off both his feet!’
‘You are misinformed, George,’ said Mrs. Bradley. ‘A person unknown (so far) has been found in Baker’s Spinney, and something—we suspect the down train—has cut off his head.’
‘Oh,’ said George, dashed, ‘that’s nothing. It happened to a chap’s sister’s fiancé at school. It could happen to you or to me. But, feet—that’s rather different. I rather wish it were feet.’
One of the most noticeable instances of the comedy-of-manners is where a party of twelve sits at table for two hours, owing to the hostess’s delusion that there are thirteen at table. Superstition is important in the novel, both as a plot device (it is used to bring the young couple, whose complicated romance is very well-handled, to the house), and as a source of humour. The mystery itself, turning on problems of identification and timing, is well-handled and plotted (until the end, when it all becomes very muddled), but the solution is obvious, and the identity of the midnight prowler (unless it is the murderer?) is never fully resolved. It is nice to return to Wandles Parva — the events that occur there are very thrilling, and very clever to have the “villains” revealed as members of Mrs. Bradley’s own household. Throughout, Mitchell’s writing is stylish and impeccable, full of references to the Metaphysical Poets — fitting, in a novel whose theme is love.
Spectator (1st November 1946):
Last autumn Gladys Mitchell scored a considerable success with her grisly story, The Rising of the Moon. In comparison with that, Here Comes a Chopper is disappointing. Certainly it is sufficiently mysterious to hold the reader’s attention, for things happen which must (he fondly supposes) be duly accounted for. But the circumstances are wholly improbable, and the end leaves point after point entirely unexplained. The fact that that agreeable old hoax, Mrs. Bradley, guesses right, as usual, is nothing when she does it only by the grace of intuition and not by any true addition of the evidence.
John O’London’s Weekly (Evelyn Banks, 15th November 1946):
Mrs. Bradley is hot on the trail in Gladys Mitchell’s Here Comes a Chopper. Here we have a headless corpse and a young couple, lost on a country walk, called in to a remote house to prevent an awkward thirteen-at-table dinner party. All very satisfactory and extremely pleasant reading.
Observer (Maurice Richardson, 7th December 1946):
Back to the drawing (and quartering) room with Gladys Mitchell’s Here Comes a Chopper, which features a supremely wholesome young country love affair interrupted by arrows. Yes, go on taking your troubles to Mrs. Bradley.
New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 21st December 1946):
Miss Gladys Mitchell’s style of surrealist detection is too fundamentally established to be criticised. In a misguided way she has a touch of genius. The first chapter of Here Comes a Chopper is as normal and readable as anyone could wish. Then comes a boy galloping along on a horse “like a Cyclops”. Does Miss Mitchell really intend to say “Cyclops,” or “Centaur”? That we shall never know, for there are no limits to her inconsequence. At any rate Mrs. Bradley soon steps in, and sees to it that we have much worse problems to worry over. Headless bodies, for instance; a Highland engine driver with second sight; scars made by a crocodile on a part of the body politely described as “a bim or semi-bim”. And there is further tooth-work: a schoolboy catches a murderer in the act and gives him a good bite. The plot thickens to the consistency of meat paste (made of pure crocodile and other ingredients) and with a final twanging of bow-strings the villain is collared by a Rugby footballer and we can all go home, thanking Miss Mitchell for the pleasure of seeing her in such good fettle.
Sydney Morning Herald (J.J.Q., 8th March 1947):
In these three [the others are Patrick Quentin’s Puzzle for Wantons and Harman Long’s Seven to Die], the striking titles are followed by a commendable plunge into their particular problems. Two are by authors with individual methods of handling a story, the third is by a new writer. In each the investigator is unofficial, the police occasionally assisting.
Here Comes a Chopper opens with two lovers on a walking tour. Missing their way, they inquire at a large house, and are asked to a birthday dinner, in order to avoid 13 at table. That cackling old witch, Dr. Bradley, is there in her capacity of mental specialist, and intervenes when a headless body is found next day not far from a wrecked car.
The lovers aid, but are not told much by Mrs. Bradley, who as usual takes an independent secretive line. Inspector Oats (called Lucas on p. 215) has no doubt of the criminal, and brushes aside his sergeant’s objections because the sergeant writes poetry in the back of his official notebook, and has a “grand passion” for the Inspector’s candidate for the gallows. The fated one you can guess; for “why” and “how” you must await Mrs. Bradley’s convenience.
An agreeable love story meanders through the darker fields of crime, and there is some smart foiling of the wicked by the old hag’s secretary. The telling is easy as an old shoe and scraps of 16th and 17th century verse head the chapters and besprinkle the text.