First published: UK, Michael Joseph, 1976
In this, her fiftieth novel, Gladys Mitchell returns to the days before Mrs. Bradley became Dame Beatrice, when life was quieter. For instance, in the small Oxfordshire village where Meg and Ken Clifton spend their school holidays, the Fair is the most exciting thing that ever happens—that is, until a double murder is suddenly committed.
The first clue to the truth is the gruesome and accidental disinterment of the body of a man who was not even thought to be dead, although it was known that he had disappeared from his lodgings. There is no doubt that he has been murdered, and in exactly the same way as the young woman whose body has already been found down by the sheepwash.
But despite the similarity of method, there seems little motive for either death, and no logical connection between the two. The general opinion is that the village contains a homicidal maniac.
Mrs. Bradley, called in by her friend Mrs. Kempson, thinks otherwise, but even with Meg and Ken’s eager assistance, she can make little progress until her enquiries uncover the reckless and impudent impersonation of a man who died five years previously.
Mitchell’s fiftieth book, and, celebrating that noble mark, she returns to the days when Dame Beatrice was Mrs. Bradley, and when life was quieter. The book is very satisfying, with some of Mitchell’s best character-drawing. The children are excellent, even if they do owe something to The Rising of the Moon. Although there are only two suspects, like Henry Wade she manages to weave a good deal of mystification and keep the story rattling along at a brisk pace — an achievement in itself. The murders themselves are well done, though the girl’s death (murdered while dressed as a dinosaur) is slightly disappointing. The village is excellent. It no longer exists in the modern world, fitting in a book dealing with the passing of time. The first and final pages sum up the book’s theme of the gradual disappearance of the past, and the final words: “I did when I was younger.” Not for nothing is it called Late, Late in the Evening.
Times Literary Supplement (P.D. James, 5th March 1976):
THE PLEASURE OF HER COMPANY
This is Gladys Mitchell’s fiftieth novel featuring her psychiatrist detective, Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, and it is right that aficionados of that redoubtable eccentric should salute a memorable jubilee. Miss Mitchell began her career in the golden age of detective fiction and has maintained her highly individual talent through all the genre’s vicissitudes. She is a tough lady. Mystery writers shrink from making a child either victim or murderer: Miss Mitchell has no such qualms, and in what is arguably her best book the killer and the killed are children. And her intellectually formidable, bizarrely dressed, three times married detective is a true original.
In this book she is not yet a Dame. The story is set in an Oxfordshire village at some unspecified time in the past. The body of a young woman is found in the village sheepwash, and that of a disreputable remittance man buried in a hole he himself has dug. Both crimes are linked to Hill House whose chatelaine calls in her friend Mrs. Lestrange Bradley. Two intelligent and likeable children help in the investigation and the story is largely seen through their eyes. The central villainy, unfairly hinted at on the jacket, is not wholly believable. But then one does not read Miss Mitchell primarily for the credibility of the tale but for the pleasure of its telling.
The Times (H.R.F. Keating, 25th March 1976):
Here is the fiftieth detective story from the pen of Gladys Mitchell and, though I cannot claim to know them all—the first (1929) came out well before I mastered reading—I do not hesitate to put it among her best. Yet her standard has always been high (The Man Who Grew Tomatoes, of 1959, now Severn House, £3.15, despite a wandering storyline, is replete with interesting characters and ingenious puzzlement, let alone social sidelights on already vanished days) and years ago my distinguished predecessor, Torquemada of The Observer, bracketed her firmly with Sayers. In her Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, psychiatric advisor to the Home Office, reptilian and yellow-skinned of face, cackling of laughter, disconcerting of manner, but never other than warmly sympathetic, she may be said to have given us the last of the larger-than-life detectives, of whom Holmes was the first.
Her method, honourable and invariably effective, might be called gradual unravelment. Dame Beatrice does not disclose all in one reader-amazing stroke. Instead, in for instance the reissued 1954 Faintley Speaking (Michael Joseph, £3.25) it is an early discovery that when Miss Faintley, a teacher, utters the title words over a telephone it must be to a colleague. By the end only the cunning details of the currency smuggling plot-mainspring remain to be revealed. This gradual elimination of varied mysteries keeps your nose in the book while you savour the incidental erudition (fern lore, here) and literary by-play (Donne, border ballads, Grimm).
The method is used as skilfully in her newest offering, though she makes a strikingly successful departure in setting it in the past, in an Oxfordshire village much like the Cowley where she herself was a child. Indeed, a child is one of her narrators and a tremendously charming and evocative picture she draws. This remembrance of things past is something the crime novel seems particularly suited to: the in-built tug of its mystery counters any likely sluggishness. If the last revelation here seems, on strict examination, unlikely (disguise, beloved of Christie, comes in) at least it gives us a plot with that element of the bizarre vital, I suspect, to the best crime entertainment.
I suppose another fifty is too much to ask?
Observer (Maurice Richardson):
The 50th novel by this civilised, intelligent, highly literate writer. Mrs. Bradley called in to solve series of rural murders with nice, old-fashioned family plot behind them. Pleasing background of Oxfordshire village life early in the century.
Edmund Crispin, Sunday Times:
The marvel is that although Miss Mitchell has been so prolific, she has also been so good. What matters is, as Mr. Philip Larkin once said to me, that “she writes so well”. And indeed, indeed she does: Miss Mitchell is certainly the most perfect and pellucid prose-writer in crime fiction.
Liverpool Daily Post:
A truly superb murder mystery.
A sprightly and highly entertaining puzzle…distinguished by some splendid characterisations and atmosphere.