The Devil’s Elbow (Gladys Mitchell)

By Gladys Mitchell

First published: UK, Michael Joseph, 1951

Blurb (UK)

Mitchell - The Devil's Elbow.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Dan Jeffries’s job, as courier on a coach taking holiday-makers on a tour of Scotland, was fairly uneventful until, with the tour nearly over, one of the party was murdered.  It was fortunate that the important facts preceding the crime had been faithfully recorded by Jeffries in letters to his fiancée, and even more fortunate that she should have been working for Mrs. Bradley.

Mrs. Bradley, as befits “the best woman detective in fiction”, was quickly on the scene, questioning and deducing, ferreting out the real facts behind this apparently motiveless crime.  There was the question of the boat-trip undertaken by some members of the coach party, the nylons found in a caravan mattress, the jewels smuggled in a barrel of fish, and other seemingly irrelevant discoveries.  But relevant they were, and Mrs. Bradley was soon well on the way to solving one of her most brilliant cases.

 The Devil’s Elbow will delight all lovers of a good detective story, and particularly the many admirers of Mrs. Adela LeStrange Bradley.

My review

A work that is more entertaining the second time round, largely because the reader is expecting less, and so is pleasurably surprised when he finds a fairly sensible, straightforward detective story, with more alibi-checking and interviewing than imagination or flights of fancy, let down only by a rather weak finish, as the culprit turns out to be a character we know little about (although her diary and Mrs. Bradley’s comments on it serve as foreshadowing).  The Scottish coach tour setting is original, but the narrator / courier is, like so many of Mitchell’s young men, first cousin to Bertie Wooster (but not to a upas tree), and the humour is often facetious and heavy-handed.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 18th November 1951):

Murder, by bashing, of a middle-aged nymphomaniac (another? but of course; there appear to be nothing but) on a motor coach tour of Scotland.  Thirty-one suspects, including two characters described as “a couple of what Maurice Richardson [sic] calls ‘jovial collar and tie spinsters.’”  Most of the narration done with artful artlessness by Dan Jeffries, the harassed courier.  Detection by old Mrs. Bradley, who pokes her sharp reptilian old nose into everybody’s business with her usual ghoulish gusto.  Despite some red herrings a lively and agreeable read.


New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 19th January 1952):

Complacent victims of Miss Mitchell should not miss The Devil’s Elbow, in which she exercises her frightful, but undeniable, talent at the expense of the passengers on a coach tour through the Highlands.  The body before discovery has to be passed from hand to hand like a Rugby football, and there are the usual scenes of utter irrelevance, but, to our amazement, the plot may be said to work; perhaps because Mrs. Bradley has for once been pushed to a back seat!


Spectator (Esther Howard, 1st February 1952):

Psychology, as Miss McCloy shows, can be useful and exciting, and my quarrel with psychiatrist-detective Mrs. Bradley is that she never makes any real use of her several abilities.  I also find her mannerisms (the cackling laugh, the clawlike hands) the most trying in detective fiction, but those who aren’t allergic will find the new Gladys Mitchell, The Devil’s Elbow, an amiable if not very closely argued story about murder on a coach-tour in Scotland.


Sunday Times (Eric Forbes-Boyd):

The victim is a member of a coach party touring Scotland.  A little humdrum but Mrs. Bradley is there, and in good form.


Sydney Morning Herald (J.J.Q., 23rd February 1952):

The murder of Lilias Pratt occurred while she was seeing “the whole o’ bo’ny Scotland for fourrty guineas inclusive”, as Inspector Mactavish later reported with amused contempt.

She was one of 31 passengers on a motor-coach driven by Bert Edwards (“a bit of an artist”) and couriered by Dan Jeffries, Oxford undergraduate.

A number of the travellers left the coach at Leith and went by boat to Aberdeen; a few hours after the party landed, Miss Pratt’s body was found with the head bashed in.  On the body was a paper inscribed: “The Devil gives the elbow to such as this”.

The trip is described by Dan in letters to his sweetheart Em.

He has a vigorous style and a laughing eye for the vagaries of the tourists.  He also follows a red herring trail, aided by an alert woman novelist and a bright boy who picks locks, climbs towers and enjoys “hazing these dicks”.

The investigation is mainly conducted by Dr. Adela Bradley, briefed by the Home Office.  Her examination of the many witnesses amplifies Dan’s sketchy portraits and eliminates all suspects but one.  Gavin, of the Yard, supplies many theories and District-Inspector Mactavish contributes pawky comments to an enjoyable story.