Skeleton Island (Gladys Mitchell)

By Gladys Mitchell

First published: UK, Gladys Mitchell, 1967

Blurb (UK)

The title and the quotations which head the chapters of this book are taken from Treasure Island, but the island of this story is, with minor alterations, Portland Bill in the county of Dorset.  (The older inhabitants of Portland claim that it is still an island, which it was until the Chesil Bank joined it to the mainland.)

The story concentrates on two main features, both fictional.  One is that the hotel which is situated on cliffs above the only beach on the island has been let, until it re-opens to summer visitors, to a small preparatory school whose premises in Kent are being rebuilt after a fire.  The other is a lighthouse which has fallen into disuse because a modern one has been put up nearer the Point.  This older lighthouse can be rented, and, when the story begins, it has been taken over by a bird-watcher, his young second wife and his nineteen-year-old son.

This boy later becomes a junior master at the prep. school, where he meets a former acquaintance, slightly older than himself, with whom his stepmother had a ship-board romance.  The son, Colin, also believes himself to be in love with his stepmother, and when the acquaintance is found murdered near the old lighthouse, Colin is suspected.

Fortunately for him, Laura Gavin is acting as temporary matron at the school while her employer, Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, is paying a series of duty visits to members of her family, and Laura brings Dame Beatrice on to the scene to uncover the truth.

Events are complicated by what appears to be the kidnapping of a little foreign boy from the prep. school, and by the goings-on of smugglers who have been in the habit of using the old lighthouse as a base.  Laura gets herself mixed up in these affairs, and her activities include a search of the Channel Islands for the boy, and a successful brush, in company with Dame Beatrice, with some of the smugglers.

My review

At first glance, this tale of illicit semi-incestuous love affairs and smuggling on a barren island seems good—a mixture of ‘romance’ and thriller. The whole, however, goes very quickly downhill — despite, or because of, kidnapped children linked to South American revolutions, naked bodies in lighthouses, and ornithologists — before ending in one of the poorest dénouements in a Mitchell novel — even Death of a Burrowing Mole is better. Note similarities to Faintley Speaking, The Murder of Busy Lizzie, and “A Light on Murder” (in Sleuth’s Alchemy).