The Murder of Busy Lizzie (Gladys Mitchell)

By Gladys Mitchell

First published: UK, Michael Joseph, 1973

Blurb (UK)

A respectable don named Lovelaine and his family are invited by his sister Eliza to spend a month at her holiday hotel on Great Skua, an island roughly identifiable, perhaps, with Lundy, but differing from that granite outcrop by being the haunt of suspected gun-runners.

The family, except for the wife, arrive to find that Eliza, the Busy Lizzie of the title is nowhere to be found.

Meanwhile, Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, on the excuse of retreating from the world in order to write her memoirs, has been persuaded by the authorities to visit the island in order to confirm or deny the rumours that profitable but nefarious activities are being carried on by the islanders.

She and her secretary became acquainted with the Lovelaines, who have their own problems, since after they have been on the island a few days, Busy Lizzie’s body is washed up on the rocks and it is suspected that she has been murdered.

Complications are caused by a coven of witches, a bevy of ornithologists, the local farmer and his illegitimate son and the fact that Mrs. Lovelaine, supposedly and by her own wish left at home, has been on the island at the time of the murder.

My review

“Witches and warlocks, bird-watchers and thugs! What sort of place is this island?”

Infinitely more successful than the earlier Skeleton Island (1967), which also dealt with the same ingredients — islands, smugglers, drowning / falls off cliffs, lighthouses, and ornithologists. This is good, straight-forward, fast-paced and exciting Mitchell, the plot reasonably complex and well-articulated, although the murderer’s identity is arbitrary, with several more attempted murders thrown in for good luck. The island, “called Great Skua because of a theory, not particularly borne out by fact, that from the mainland it resembled in shape and general colouring that predatory sea-bird … was nothing more than a vast piece of granite rock … but … looked about as welcoming as a prison”, has good landscape, with caves, coves, cliffs, and tides, all profitable for great explorations; and the ingredients of the story, including gun-running (as the island “‘must have been a smugglers’ paradise at one time, and I believe it still is'”), white witchcraft, desecrated graves, and ornithologists, are well-combined. The only problem is that Dame Beatrice only begins to function in Chapter 9 (although she and Laura, staying in the house where, unbeknownst to them, the murder was committed, appear earlier). Most of the story is seen through the eyes of the victim’s nephew and niece. Otherwise, an agreeable and diverting story.