First published: UK, Michael Joseph, 1984
After more than fifty years of crime writing, Gladys Mitchell died in July 1983 at the age of 82. The Crozier Pharaohs, completed shortly before her death, is her last crime novel and the third to be published posthumously.
Trouble starts in the quiet coastal village of Abbots Crozier when Bryony and Morpeth, the eccentric Rant sisters of Crozier Lodge, decide to breed Pharaoh hounds, the oldest domesticated dogs in the world.
The sisters reluctantly take on a kennel-maid to care for the Pharaohs but, some time after her arrival, their Labrador, Sekhmet, is stolen. The theft leads to the discovery of a dead body in the river. Is the unidentified corpse connected with the night prowler who has been tapping on the windows of Crozier Lodge? Before the mystery can be solved, a second body is found on the moor.
When suspicion falls on the Rants’ kennel-maid, Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley and Laura Gavin are called in to retrace the steps of the dead men and find out how and why they died.
Her final published novel, a posthumous offering — and my fiftieth book. It is a great pity, however, that what should have been a summing up of her career in the same way that, at greatly differing spheres of quality, Agatha Christie’s Curtain (1975) and Edmund Crispin’s The Glimpses of the Moon (1977) were, is nothing more than an enjoyable, if mediocre, tale.
The story takes place in the coastal village of Abbots Crozier, whose “hotel windows commanded wide views of the sea and the moors and there were pleasant walks to be had in the upland air and along the banks of the little river which, when it reached the top of the cliffs, foamed, churned, and rushed downhill to meet the sea” — ample scope for Gladys Mitchell to wax lyrical about the picturesquely rugged scenery, as she sets Dame Beatrice Bradley and her assistant Laura Gavin sleuthing. Unfortunately, Dame Beatrice and Laura do not sleuth. Instead, they remain firmly fixed on the periphery of the story until three-fifths of the story has gone by, making witty remarks at each other.
Their absence from the scene is taken up by long descriptions of the eccentric household of the Rant sisters, Bryony and Morpeth (actually, the only evidence the book presents as to their eccentricity is the number of people saying how eccentric they must be because they breed dogs, and their bizarre names), close siblings in the tradition of The Rising of the Moon and The Echoing Strangers, whose father — a possible murderer — killed himself, and the murders with which they come into contact. The first victim, a kidnapper of dogs (for what reason is never made clear), is found drowned in the river, apparently in his terrified haste to escape from a dog—the only connection dogs have with the case. A verdict of accident is passed, although Dame Beatrice and Laura, safely distanced from the scene of the crime, “suspect that there has been dirty work at the crossroads or, in this case, at the confluence of the waters”. Their suspicions become certainty when a lunatic (or impostor?) is found with his throat cut in a valley with “fascinating rock formations and … a brooding air of mystery and evil”.
It is not until this second murder has been committed that Dame Beatrice begins to stir her stumps, packing a revolver or “what the American gangsters used to refer to as the old equaliser”, as she enquires into hats, rabbits, dogs, poachers, lunatics, razors and prescriptions in an effort to clear the kennel-maid Susan of suspicion, and work out which of the three or four suspects committed the crime. As little detection tends to mean few clues, the solution, although perhaps less arbitrary than some other examples of late Mitchell (e.g. Winking at the Brim, 1974), relies on a lot of new information, and so is unfair.
Although the reader may believe that my attitude to this book is wholly negative, it is moderately entertaining, and is just unfortunately mediocre.
The Times (Marcel Berlins, 2nd August 1984):
The third, and alas last, posthumously published Mitchell shows her in vivacious form to the end. Unexplained deaths among the breeders of Pharaoh hounds in eccentric-packed seaside village brings Dame Beatrice to investigate. Lashings of erudition and humour, and matchless crafting of plot and word.
Times Literary Supplement (T.J. Binyon, 26th October 1984):
Gladys Mitchell died last July at the age of eighty-two; The Crozier Pharaohs is the third and last of her books to be published posthumously; it brings the total, since Speedy Death in 1929, to the extremely impressive number of sixty-six. It cannot honestly be said that there is a great deal of detection in this story of two sisters, Bryony and Morpeth Rant, who breed Pharaoh hounds, originally the hunting dogs of Egyptian kings and nobles and therefore undoubtedly the oldest domesticated dogs in the world; whose Labrador, Sekhmet, is stolen; which leads to the discovery of one corpse with head bashed in and another with throat cut. But the novel is as elegantly written, as unmistakably Mitchellian as ever; and devotees will get a great deal of pleasure from the conversations between Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley and her athletic assistant, Laura Gavin.
Ave atque vale to her last posthumous offering. Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley may be an acquired taste perhaps, like olives and durians, but marvellous once acquired (we have had half a century to do it), and she is as beady and compulsive as ever in this Wessex tangle of pedigree dog-leads.
Houston Chronicle (Susan L. Clark, 22nd September 1985):
The Crozier Pharaohs, Gladys Mitchell’s last whodunit, displays the same workmanlike plotting that characterized the dozens of crime novels she produced in a writing career that spanned more than fifty years. Her series detective, psychiatrist Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, has been amply praised by the likes of Edmund Crispin, himself a popular mystery writer, and Philip Larkin, who was instrumental in the rediscovery of novelist Barbara Pym, and there has consistently been good reason for this praise. The detective fiction reader routinely finds in a Mitchell novel a plausible crime, a goodly number of likely suspects, and sufficient red herrings to divert attention from the murderer.
In this, her third posthumously published work, Mitchell sets the crime in tiny, isolated Abbots Crozier, where, at Crozier Lodge, Morpeth and Bryony Rant have recently begun to raise Pharaoh hounds. Dame Beatrice’s job is to determine how a series of unsettling events is linked: a dog theft, a prowler, a body in a stream and a corpse on the moor. And what connection do these have to the earlier death of the Rant sisters’ father, the unknown background of a surly kennel-maid and the habits of the local poachers?
The tone throughout is very British and very “talky”, with recurrences of dry humour and bits of local colour. The Crozier Pharaohs seems very much a civilized read, makes absolutely no social statement whatsoever and makes no bones about being anything else other than what it is: a classic British novel of detection that could have been written as easily in 1935 as in 1982, when it was completed shortly before Mitchell’s death.