Mary Jean DeMarr on Gladys Mitchell (1989)



Ed. Bernard Benstock and Thomas F. Staley

A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book

Gale Research Inc., Detroit and London, 1989

Gladys Maude Winifred Mitchell was born on 19 April 1901 in Cowley, near Oxford, England, to James and Annie Julia Maude (Simmonds) Mitchell; her father was of Scottish background.  She was educated at the Rothschild School in Brentford and the Green School in Isleworth; in Middlesex, where she had moved with her family in 1909; and at Goldsmith’s College (1919–1921) and University College, London, where she qualified as a teacher and took a diploma in European history (1926).

During her long career Mitchell was not only a prolific writer but also a teacher of history and athletics and an athletic coach.  After graduating from University College she taught at a small Anglican school, St. Paul’s in Brentford, for over four years and then took a position at St. Ann’s Senior Girls’ School, Hanwell, where she remained until 1939.  After a period of illness she became a teacher of Spanish as well as of history and athletics at Brentford Senior Girls’ School.  In 1950 she retired from this latter position; in 1953, however, she joined the staff of the Matthew Arnold Secondary School for Girls, where she taught history and English and wrote plays on classical and traditional subjects for performance by the girls.  She finally retired from teaching in 1961.  Her experiences in schools contributed greatly to the success of her crime fiction, both in her plots and settings, and in her witty and realistic characterisations of young people.  She also put her knowledge of adolescents to use in creating a number of books, mostly mysteries, for young people.

A distinguished crime writer of the Golden Age, Mitchell was an early member of the Detection Club and a member of the Crime Writers’ Club.  She also belonged to the Society of Authors and was a fellow of the Ancient Monuments Society.  In addition, her interest in historical preservation is reflected in the crime novels written under the pseudonym Malcolm Torrie.

Mitchell began writing early, but her first four novels were rejected.  Her first novel, Speedy Death (1929), introduced the character Mrs. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, for whom Mitchell is primarily known; Mrs. Bradley (later Dame Beatrice) appears in all of the adult mystery novels written under Mitchell’s name.  Her most obvious characteristics are her physical eccentricities; she is always described as being exceptionally ugly.  Her skin is yellow, her hands are like claws, and her laugh is a cackle.  She is often compared to a pterodactyl and sometimes goes by the nickname “Mrs. Croc”.  Allusions are frequently made to her “basilisk eye”.  These characteristics remain constant as she ages, but they are less regularly emphasised in later novels.  Along with the unpleasant externals, Mrs. Bradley possesses a disconcertingly lovely voice and often reveals an empathetic understanding of others and the ability to elicit warm, almost fanatic support.  She is by profession a psychiatrist and frequently introduces herself to persons whom she wishes to question about a crime as a “psychiatric consultant to the Home Office”.

As an early member of the Detection Club and a friend of leading practitioners of the genre in the Golden Age, Mitchell followed the established rules, always with wit and originality.  The almost comic expertise of her central character helps set her work apart from that of any of her contemporaries but also places her squarely in the mainstream.  Mrs. Bradley often informs intimates early on that she knows who is guilty and how the deed was done, the only remaining problem being lack of proof.  The comic and artificial tone of the Mrs. Bradley novels places Mitchell clearly in the tradition of the Golden Age.  But she both used and parodied some of its conventions; thus, her novels are never predictable.

The Saltmarsh Murders (1932) provides an early example of Mitchell’s literary skill.  Narrated in the third [sic] person (a technique she was to continue to use from time to time) by Noel Wells, a shallow, naïve, yet likable young curate, the novel makes use of such staples of the genre as the village fête as a showcase for rural class conflict, and the idealisation of youthful femininity, in this case the narrator’s love for the virtuous and beautiful young niece of his superior.  The novel also presents such stereotypical characters as the kindly yet detached vicar and his malicious and overbearing wife.  The narrator has become a clergyman for no better reason than having been bequeathed some money on the condition that he enter orders, but he tries to do his best, and his sincere if bumbling efforts are endearing.  Noel’s dual function as narrative voice and sidekick to Mrs. Bradley soon becomes clear, but it is Mrs. Bradley who superficially defines it in a structurally interesting appendix.  Placed after the novel proper and thus outside Noel’s narrative, the appendix consists of notes that Mrs. Bradley made in her roles as practicing psychiatrist and criminal investigator.  The appendix explains the solution to the mystery in a more cogent way than Noel could have managed and avoids the conventional artificiality of forcing Mrs. Bradley to spell it all out to him.  Mrs. Bradley describes him as her “invaluable Boswell, Captain Hastings, Doctor Watson” and goes on to epitomise him—and the type he represents—quite aptly: “Child has a head like a turnip.  I do not think the Bar suffered any great loss when he went into the Church.  Nice enough youth, though.  Little Daphne [his sweetheart] will do as she pleases with him.”  This final passage, though a structural oddity, nevertheless accomplishes a crucial traditional task of the conventional mystery in a way that appropriately sums up and draws together various threads of the novel.

Through the course of the Mrs. Bradley novels the character acquires a circle of family and associates and a firm centre of operations.  She lives in what is always referred to as “the Stone House,” in Wandles Parva, where she is attended by her faithful and philosophical chauffeur George and her equally faithful but often impudent secretary Laura.  Her son from a first marriage, Ferdinand Lestrange, is a well-known barrister who occasionally is consulted in his professional capacity.  A nephew, Carey Lestrange, a pig farmer, is another recurring character.  Various young female relatives also appear.  Sally Lestrange, Mrs. Bradley’s granddaughter, plays a central rôle in Winking at the Brim (1974), Mitchell’s playful novel on the Loch Ness monster theme: Sally is one of the few who actually sight the monster, and she fancies that it winks at her.  It is less kindly to the murderer in the novel, for in a device typical of several of Mitchell’s denouements, the monster is given the privilege of disposing of the culprit.

Similarly, in a late novel, The Death-Cap Dancers (1981), Hermione Lestrange, known familiarly as “Hermy One”, a grandniece of Mrs. Bradley (now known as Dame Beatrice), stumbles into a murder mystery.  Hermione is central to the plot of the novel, though structurally it is idiosyncratic.  The opening directs the reader’s attention to Hermione and the group of new friends she has chanced to discover; after they find a body, however, the focus shifts to a group of amateur dancers of which the dead young woman had been a member.  The narrative moves back and forth between the two groups as the plot is unwound, and the novel’s conclusion draws the two threads together in a frightening climactic scene that employs a device similar to that at the end of Winking at the Brim—here the culprit is killed by a boar accidentally freed from his pen on Hermione’s father’s pig farm.

Other members of Mrs. Bradley’s family are mentioned from time to time, but Laura Menzies, later Laura Gavin, is of great interest and importance.  She is the kind of confidante and collaborator that Noel Wells, for example, had not the intelligence or objectivity to become.  In such novels as Faintley Speaking (1954), Watson’s Choice (1955), and Winking at the Brim Laura is an exemplary secretary and investigative assistant.  Laura is particularly useful to Mrs. Bradley in Faintley Speaking because of her ability to befriend young Mark Street, a boy who unwittingly becomes involved in a disappearance which turns into a murder.  Her spunky eagerness to explore dangerous places and her willingness to trespass (as a matter of principle, because she opposes the right of a property owner to close off access to what should, in her view, be public beaches) make her very useful.  Later, because she happens to have qualified as a teacher, she is able to substitute at the murder victim’s school, where she continues to gather evidence.

Unfortunately, Laura’s detecting abilities, again employed by Mrs. Bradley in Watson’s Choice, are rather repeatedly belittled there; Mitchell’s development of her characters was not always completely consistent.  Laura’s “usual shrewdness,” however, is specifically stressed.  Her fiancé becomes involved in the detecting this time, and Mrs. Bradley’s rather ostentatious fondness for him is established: she regularly refers to him as “our dear Robert,” while Laura usually calls him simply “Gavin”.  Laura and Gavin’s affair seems to be a rather lukewarm one: Laura wonders why she doesn’t fall more passionately in love with Gavin and doubts that she will be a good wife.  Mitchell makes the eventual marriage and, later, Laura’s motherhood take second place to her life with Mrs. Bradley.

Watson’s Choice is additionally interesting in reemphasising Mitchell’s Golden Age roots.  As its title suggests, Watson’s Choice is based on the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  It begins with a party to which characters are directed to come costumed as Holmesian characters and at which they must play a sort of scavenger hunt in which items sought are material allusions to the Doyle stories.

By the time of the publication of Winking at the Brim Laura’s relationship with Dame Beatrice has matured, and a younger woman, Sally Lestrange, seems more like the Laura of the earlier novels.  In Winking at the Brim, in fact, the crime is solved by the three women working as a team.  In the penultimate chapter they talk through what they know as equals.  The chapter effectively uses their conversation both to dramatise their affection for each other and to rewrite the formerly mandatory “revelation scene” in such a way that it gives its readers all necessary information and knits up all the loose ends in a perfectly natural and believable way—an even more functional solution to this problem of the genre than the one Mitchell had employed in The Saltmarsh Murders.

Mitchell’s plots and settings varied considerably, but she frequently returned to the school or college settings that were most familiar to her.  In Faintley Speaking and St. Peter’s Finger (1938) schools are used as settings, while in Spotted Hemlock (1958) Mitchell makes use of two adjoining agricultural colleges, one for women and one for men.  Her insider’s knowledge enabled Mitchell to cast a satiric eye in these novels on students and faculty members alike.  Mitchell’s treatment of the young people she knew so well, however, was not purely comic.  Indeed, a gift for portraying real young folks, warts and all, marks many of her novels.  The presentation of young Mark Street in Faintley Speaking is both comic and warmly tender.  His twelve-year-old’s scorn for women, especially women teachers, and his resentment over being cheated out of a much desired bicycle trip in France are as pathetic as they are funny.  Mrs. Bradley is humanised by her immediate understanding of his pain, which inspires her to take him off for a quick trip to the caves of Lascaux, in which he had expressed an interest.  The fact that an important clue is discovered as a result seems almost parenthetical.

One of Mitchell’s favourite novels, however, is an even better example of her wise and sympathetic treatment of young people.  In a 1976 interview with B.A. Pike she commented that one of her personal favourites was The Rising of the Moon (1945) because it “recalls much of my Brentford childhood (I am Simon in that story and my adorable brother Reginald is Keith).”  The narrator, Simon, is portrayed at the age of thirteen, while Keith is two years younger.  Their pranks, their dislike of the sister-in-law with whom they live, their longing for adventure, their heedless cruelties, and their inarticulate yearnings for love are all movingly portrayed.

Although many of the same themes inform her other work, Mitchell used two pseudonyms to distinguish her non-Bradley adult novels.  For a period in the 1930s she attempted to succeed with “straight” novels published under the name Stephen Hockaby.  She later said that she chose a masculine pen name because the first of these books, Marsh Hay (1933), had a male narrator, Etin Burntfen, who tells a rather sordid tale of growing up in rural England of the Edwardian period.  The novel sets a traditional village society against historical movements of the period—the threat of the coming war is felt, and the woman suffrage movement presages social change.  The novel is well written and, like the rest of the Hockaby novels, entirely different from Mitchell’s output under her own name.

The last of the Hockaby novels to be published, Grand Master (1939), is one of Mitchell’s finest accomplishments.  A richly textured tale of adventure set in the Mediterranean region and depicting the siege of Malta, it follows its English protagonist from boyhood captivity by Moors and Spaniards through a highly dramatic life in which he eventually becomes grand master of the Knights Hospitallers.   After Grand Master Mitchell wrote one more Hockaby novel, but her publisher rejected it, and she ceased writing under the pseudonym.

Mitchell’s other pseudonym, Malcolm Torrie, is attached to six detective novels of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  She presumably chose a male pen name for these novels because they centre around a male detective, although he eventually is joined by a young wife.  Timothy Herring, the protagonist of the Torrie novels, is the secretary (and apparently one of the few working members) of the Society for the Preservation of Historic Buildings, called Phisbe.  He selects old buildings that are worthy of preservation and works with the restoration projects; these activities regularly lead him to dead bodies and strange situations.  In his first appearance, in Heavy as Lead (1966), Timothy is a determinedly free bachelor who barely escapes entanglement with an attractive murder suspect; perhaps the suspect’s chequered past made her ineligible for such a respectable upholder of tradition as Timothy.

The novel Your Secret Friend (1968) introduces Timothy to Alison Marchmont Pallis, a sharp-tongued, embittered, and apparently unlovable teacher who is involved in a most unsuitable and destructive liaison with a married man.  Timothy rescues her from the situation and from a group of insensitive young “witches” (pupils at her school who have formed a “coven”), and at the end of the novel she agrees to marry him.  From this point on they detect together, as equals, Alison’s knowledge of history often turning out to be as useful as Timothy’s understanding of old buildings.

The Torrie novels, except for their differing central characters, are much like the works published under Mitchell’s own name.  The plotting has the same originality, themes show similar variety, and characterisations and settings are familiar.  But most recognisable, perhaps, is Mitchell’s clear, witty, penetrating style.  Her skill in narration is unexceeded by any of her contemporaries, and her ability to make style characterise her players is exemplary.  An early case of such skill in characterisation is provided by Noel Wells of The Saltmarsh Murders; his mannerism of repeating “of course,” as if this incantation could force something to be true or clear, effectively helps underscore his own shallow understanding and his habitually good-humoured wishful thinking.

While Mitchell’s crime fiction has often been seen as excessively eccentric, with plots that do not always make sense and are not always satisfactorily clarified, her exuberant vitality and variety give her mysteries strong appeal.  Her writing is less well known in the United States than in England, and accessibility of her work on this side of the Atlantic has been a problem.  In recent years St. Martin’s Press has been making some of her best work available in the United States.  One may hope she will now find here the readership which she deserves.