The Mudflats of the Dead (Gladys Mitchell)

By Gladys Mitchell

First published: UK, Michael Joseph, 1979


Blurb (UK)

A young man who has published his first book takes a holiday to find a setting for his second, and thinks he has found it in a village on the east coast sea-marshes, between Cley and Wells-next-the-Sea.  Here he meets a girl art student who subsequently is found drowned.  The verdict at the inquest is that she bathed on a dangerous outgoing tide and the death was accidental.

Her friends refuse to believe this, and they call for an enquiry.  If, as they affirm, she was murdered, the young man could be involved, as he bathed with the girl by moonlight on the night she may have drowned.

Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley undertakes to look into the case and soon finds that there were some sinister incidents in the girl’s past and some most unlikely coincidences connected with her stay at a holiday cottage.  Not until the mudflats have claimed two more bodies is the full truth revealed, largely through the contents of the young man’s second novel.


My review

2000

This is one of Mitchell’s better books in the late period, with a startlingly beautiful evocation of landscape. Landscape is the Holy Grail for the narrator of the first half, the author Colin Palgrave, suffering, like Hannibal Jones in the earlier classic The Devil at Saxon Wall, from writer’s block – often in the Mitchell novels of the 1960s onwards, setting, not plot, is the inspiration. It is thus fitting that no characters are introduced until the landscape has been introduced. Among the characters is the nymphomaniac Camilla Hoveton St. John, later found drowned, having unwittingly prophesied her death in the following words: “Moonlight on the sea makes me crazy. I could die for the sheer, crazy joy of being drowned in it.” She has her wish, interrupting the novel-writing, as Palgrave is suspected by the police. The death later unleashes artistic talent – in the thirteenth chapter, it seems as if ghosts have taken possession of Palgrave and are writing the novel for him. Dame Beatrice arrives in the second half, and we follow her interviews with fishermen, holiday-makers, and so on, before she unmasks the killer, in a rather poetic denouement. Good one.


Contemporary reviews

Observer:

Another Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, with the harridan this time nosing into tide-movements on the coast of East Anglia.  A nymphet art-student has been found washed up there, and a likely suspect is a priggish novelist known to have run out of subject matter.  Competently done, but a lot depends on whether or not you can take the arch, archaic lingo.