Speedy Death (Gladys Mitchell)

By Gladys Mitchell

First published: UK, Gollancz, 1929

Blurb (UK)

Mitchell - Speedy Death.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

The famous explorer is unpardonably late for dinner, and they start without him.  Uneasiness grows, and they go upstairs to find out.  He is discovered dead in the bath and – even more horrible – the body is that of a woman…

My review

With the appearance of Speedy Death in 1929, the face of crime fiction was changed forever. Over the fifty-five years between its publication and that of The Crozier Pharaohs in 1984, readers were treated to sixty-six bizarre and funny novels, in which insane murderers committed their crimes against a background of water nymphs, moving stones, ghosts, witchcraft, devils, Greek gods, obscure customs, sexually repressed spinsters, criminal lunatics, and dismembered corpses. To cope with these, a strong detective is needed — and Mitchell introduces the most memorable detective of all time in this book: Mrs. Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, a sinister pterodactyl-like psycho-analyst with the smile of a Cheshire Cat, and the morals of a shark—cynical, contemptuous, witty, shrieking, cackling, unorthodox, unconventional, genius, in what is undoubtedly the best debut a detective ever achieved—although it seems Mitchell intended the naturalist Carstairs to be her detective (or a very intelligent Watson? — although Laura Menzies is highly intelligent).

The story is a comedy-of-manners with Victorian melodrama thrown in; as one of the characters comments, some of the events “sounded more like the meaty bit out of a shilling shocker to me”. The ingredients include transvestism (‘Rather bad luck to find out that the chap you are engaged to is a woman, what?’) and lesbianism, pathological jealousy, revenant corpses, justified murder (or, as Mrs. Bradley herself puts it, ‘a logical elimination of unnecessary, and, in fact, dangerous matter…’), midnight attacks and hasty marriages, and fleeting references to birth-control, marking this as a very progressive novel. The detection is in-depth, using interesting material and psychological clues — the murderer’s obsession with clocks is particularly fascinating. Characterisation and dialogue are both excellent — wonderful Mrs. Bradley, but the high-light of the novel is undoubtedly the climactic trial.  It is a pleasure to see Mrs. Bradley’s enjoyment at being arrested — but, then, the entire novel is a pleasure.

Contemporary reviews

Spectator (6th July 1929):

Speedy Death is above the usual run of detective stories.  The heroine, or villainess, is a psycho-analyst, and we think Miss Mitchell must be almost the first champion in fiction of this much-abused class.  The whole book, in fact, turns upon the obsession of a young woman whose natural desires have been suppressed, and on their effect on her actions.  Though, therefore, the plot is no more life like than that of any other detective story, it has been found possible to provide a new type of clue for the reader, though the police are as obstinate as ever, and to dispense again with that mechanisation of criminal life which has become so prevalent in the detective novel today.


Times Literary Supplement (11th July 1929):

It is a pity that Speedy Death has been published in an age which no longer requires its fiction to be provided with illustrations, as even a frontispiece of Mrs. Bradley would have enabled the reader to enjoy beholding her “reptilian grin” or “saurian smile”.  She is a psycho-analyst, and knows her job.  Eleanor, so quiet and reserved to the world at large, has quite another character in Mrs. Bradley’s observant eyes, and the little woman positively enjoys the sensations which she is able to experience and catalogue while being arrested and tried for murder.  The author introduces several surprises before she escorts Mrs. Bradley into court and out again, without any legal stain upon her penetrating character.  She kills the famous explorer in a bath, and permits a surprised world to marvel at the fact that he is a she and has apparently been quite unaccountably murdered.  Then she causes Eleanor to be found apparently dead in the same fatal bath, and even more surprisingly brings her back to an existence which the reader will instinctively feel is only necessary as a subject-matter for Mrs. Bradley’s investigations and experiments, for Eleanor’s character, although of interest to a psycho-analyst, is almost a nuisance to some very inoffensive people, and is probably the cause of her brother’s odd behaviour.  Lastly she makes hay with all the preconceived notions of how a person accused of murder ought to feel and behave, and, generally, puts so much good stuff into Mrs. Bradley’s make-up that it is to be hoped that this is not to be that remarkable woman’s only appearance in a mystery story.


Daily News:

Extremely well constructed story of murder and detection…Mrs. Bradley is the prize piece of the story; and with her abrupt manner, her quick wit, her startling intuition, she is a great addition to the too-brief list of women interested in crime…The incidents of the book are quick and coherent, the dialogue life-like, and there is just the right amount of characterization to keep one’s interest alive in the persons of the book apart from the murders and their investigation.