The Dancing Druids (Gladys Mitchell)

By Gladys Mitchell

First published: UK, Michael Joseph, 1948

Blurb (UK)

The nine rocks known as The Dancing Druids had become objects of mystery and suspicion in their locality, and were linked in people’s minds with the disappearance at nine-yearly intervals of three apparently harmless men.  There was also the smuggling mystery: it was known that valuable paintings and clever fakes were being smuggled abroad, but it was not until Mrs. Bradley, with her unerring acumen and the help of her attractive young secretary Laura, deduced a connection between this trade and the disappearances, that the two mysteries were finally solved.

In The Dancing Druids, Mrs. Bradley is at her devastating best, saurian perhaps but very human, and the story is one of the best Miss Mitchell has given us.

My review

Who knew what ghastly sights and sounds the stones had been witnesses of in long past times and under the ancient sky? Why, anyway, were they called the Druids and, again, why should they dance? Laura saw them enveloped, like witches, in cloaks of mist. She saw them writhe out of the ground, and, with slow contortions, shuffle towards their victims, avid for blood. … The stones, she thought, after all, were alive. They lived some strange, remote life of their own, up there on the barren hill. They were kept alive by human blood … by the innocent blood of murdered men!

Of Gladys Mitchell’s Croftsian thrillers (The Worsted Viper, Faintley Speaking, Skeleton Island), this one is without any doubt the best. From the masterly terrifying beginning, the book takes on a Brothers Grimm quality, an effect heightened by the chapter quotations. The stone circles, sense of prehistoric Britain, midnight vigils, vanished men, dead trees and smuggling all combine to produce an exciting tale (with a nice bit of silliness provided by the chauffeur George’s surname).

The scene at the beginning — the young man coming across some seemingly inexplicable event, here a wrapped-up, motionless and bleeding invalid — is a plot device first encountered in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but later used again and again by R. Austin Freeman.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 27th June 1948):

Miss Gladys Mitchell is still in holiday mood—ferial, but still feral, as the lion said when he escaped on Whit-Monday.  The Dancing Druids opens nicely with a spent cross-country runner reeling into a suspicious shambles in the West Country.  Mrs. Bradley, graciously waving her tail, descends in force.  There are thrillerish developments up cliff and under cromlech.  Miss Mitchell can never keep right off the mandragora, and the atmosphere becomes faintly unreal, but the usual good time is had.