First published: UK, Gollancz, 1929
The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop (1929) is sheer reading pleasure, due to the brisk, alert, and witty tone; excellent characterisation; and intriguing and humorous plot—not to mention the strong presence of Mrs. Bradley.
The story is set in a village — a nice, quiet, simple, quintessentially Agatha Christie-ish English village. However, “Such Terrible Things have been happening down in Bossbury, that really one wonders why people come to the country for peace and quietness!” A human body, cut into joints, is found hanging from the hooks in the local butcher’s lock-up shop; a human skull is found buried in the cliffs; and the number of people in the Manor Woods resembles a French farce, with people popping in and out from behind trees. “Hampstead Heath on an August Bank Holiday is not to be compared with the Manor Woods on the night of June 22nd.” It is difficult for the reader to decide who the “carver of bodies and a person who runs about the countryside conveying skulls from place to place” is, because, as well as “quite a number of extraordinarily constituted persons living among us” (Mitchell deals in eccentrics), Mitchell here boasts a novel and ingenious trick of which Christie would have been proud, with perhaps the best clues Mitchell ever thought up, both bizarre physical clues such as flannels, skulls, false teeth, blood-stained suitcases, and stuffed trout; and psychological clues — “character, habits of mind, social customs — these things are of boundless importance in a case of this kind.”
The woods in which the particularly brutal murder (actually, not particularly brutal, despite all the decapitation and dismemberment, as Mitchell turns “one of the more unsavoury and horrifying crimes of the decade” into black comedy of the highest order) are seen as “a pagan temple” — Mitchell’s fascination in human sacrifice appears for the first time in this book. The victim, Rupert Sethleigh, a particularly despicable blackmailer and womaniser, is decapitated on the Stone of Sacrifice, “a solid block of granite, roughly triangular in shape, and once … the altar of some prehistoric temple to the sun. Priests of a lost religion had sacrificed upon it to their god the flesh of rams or cattle or the blood of human kind. What dread ecstatic dances, what strange and awful sights, what deeds of violence and cruelty the Stone had witnessed, Felicity could only guess.” The parallel to human sacrifice is made deliberately clear with Mrs. Bradley commenting upon the murderer’s “urge to offer a human sacrifice” — “a pleasing idea. Rather fantastic, perhaps…” In Gladys Mitchell’s novels, evil influences from the past linger on. The Dancing Druids, in the 1948 novel of the same name, compel criminal gangs to commit murder (the above quote on the Stones as mute witnesses to barbaric practices is repeated in almost exactly the same phrase in that book), as the Whispering Knights of thirty-two years later also do.
Mrs. Bradley, “a small, shrivelled, bird-like woman, who might have been thirty-five and who might have been ninety” [i.e., she is timeless, has escaped time, and is therefore able to withstand the influence of the past in order to solve the present and bring about a happier future], “twice widowed, black-eyed, claw-fingered, age no longer interesting except to the more grasping and avaricious of her relatives”, is at the top of her powers here. She is a much better detective than in Speedy Death, as she does not take such a drastic approach to the solution of the situation. She is more human and less amoral than in that book. She does not bat an eyelid at nearly being killed when “an arrow — a cloth-yard, goose-feathered, Battle of Agincourt affair with a great iron barb and a most professionally Robin Hood flight, came whizzing past my ear and stuck in the trunk of a tree on the farther side of the clearing,” other than to “cackle with genuine gratification”. On hearing that an unpleasant suspect has been found “hanging by his braces from the wood-shed door entirely”, she “calmly” remarks, “I’m glad it’s entirely. I am bored to death by mere limbs and joints.”This book, in which Mrs. Bradley tracks down “not … a man possessing a perverted sense of humour, but … a man of such deadly seriousness of mind that the mere word “eccentricity” could not account for his peculiar traits”, is quite simply a masterpiece. Entertaining, ingenious, and sheer good fun.
Times Literary Supplement (14th November 1929):
Jim Redsey knocked down his mean cousin, Rupert, one Sunday evening in the Manor Wood, and was afraid he had killed him. But when he went back to bury the corpse it had gone. The pieces of it were found two days later neatly disjointed and hung in a butcher’s lock-up shop in Bossbury Market, except the skull, which was found a fortnight later on a sea-cliff with a plant of thrift growing out of it. Mrs. Bradley, the alligator-like psycho-analyst, helped the police to solve the riddle. Suspects were Jim Redsey; Dr. Barnes, whom Rupert had blackmailed; the absent-minded vicar, unaccountably in possession of Rupert’s tobacco-case; Mrs. Harringay, whose son might be Rupert’s heir; Lulu Hirst, artist’s model, carrying on with four men at once; Wright, the artist, and Savile, the would-be-artist, two of the four men. On page 280 is a plan of the house and woods; if the reader happens to discover this before he has puzzled through 280 pages instead of after, he will find the hide-and-seek manoeuvres in the wood and the mixture of true and false clues quite entertaining.
Beatrice Kean Seymour (Woman’s Journal):
There is a briskness ,a compactness, about her narrative style which, combined with a masterly trick of suspense, carries the reader along triumphantly, and definitely places Miss Mitchell among the first half-dozen writers of this kind of book.
Outlook (W.R. Brooks, 26th February 1930, 120w):
Irresistibly amusing, and a good detective story of the English country house school.
Springfield Republican (25th May 1930, 170w):
The story is written in a light vein, and the author pokes fun impartially at all her characters.
Books (Will Cuppy, 6th April 1930, 200w):
Miss Mitchell has done a neat job, suitable for persons who can do with some farcical proceedings while they are pondering upon the dismembered corpse.