The Saltmarsh Murders (Gladys Mitchell)

By Gladys Mitchell

First published: UK, Gollancz, 1932


My review

Mitchell - The Saltmarsh Murders.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Mitchell’s fourth book is one of her best. It has all her virtues (humour, imagination, ingenuity, controlled complications, and style), and none of her faults. Saltmarsh is a loud, unruly village, where live pornography smugglers, adulterers, incesters, prudes, and lunatics. As the vicaress remarks, “The village will get itself a name like Sodom and Gomorrah if things are allowed to go on unchecked.” The emphasis of the book is on sex, and only the twice-married Mrs. Bradley’s interventions can end the perversions. The plot itself is excellent, involving the strangulations of an unmarried mother and a masochistic actress, and possible infanticide. The solution is equally brilliant — a least-likely person, a clever piece of psychological manipulation, and a clever hiding-place for a dead body. The characters are first-class. All are eccentrics, especially the three old women: Mrs. Bradley the detective, Mrs. Coutts the vicaress, and the batty Mrs. Gatty. The story, narrated by the ingenuous curate Noel Wells, has its own charm. Wells is even less intelligent than Christie’s Captain Hastings, yet this, surprisingly, is all to the good. The book has been hailed as a classic several times, most noticeably by Nicholas Blake and Patricia Craig — and no wonder, for the book is a sheer delight


Contemporary reviews

 

Times Literary Supplement (12th May 1932):

The redeeming feature of this tale of village scandal and crime is the reappearance of that extraordinary woman, Mrs. Bradley, who happened to be staying up at the Manor, when the Vicar’s maid was found strangled in the village inn, eleven days after she had given birth to a fatherless child.  Mrs. Bradley can be relied upon to redeem anything, however vile and to save any situation however complicated; and she does so in this case with her usual brilliance and dash.  Perhaps she is a little too superhuman, even for the cleverest of amateur detectives, for at Saltmarsh she had to marshal the evidence of a number of extremely unpleasant people.  In the face of these difficulties she remains absolutely undaunted, and comes off a winner in the end.  Miss Mitchell’s plot, her characters and her easy style are alike excellent, though she occasionally disregards an improbability that no professional detective would overlook.

 

NY Evening Post (Rumana McManis, 25th March 1933, 20w):

This is a good English novel as well as a good mystery.  The lady psychologist, unfortunately, is really too eccentric.

 

Books (Will Cuppy, 2nd April 1933, 220w):

A most unusual combination of horror, fun and honest-to-goodness brainwork.

 

Saturday Review of Literature (29th April 1933):

Double murder in idyllic—oh, yeah?—English village excites detective instinct of sardonic and sharp-witted Mrs. Bradley.  One of the few mystery stories for the adult mind.  Thrills, humour, considerable a-morality, and much slick psychology.  Very good.

 

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 30th April 1933, 200w):

This book, we understand, is Gladys Mitchell’s first introduction to American readers.  It reveals her as an adept in the delineation of eccentric characters and the possessor of a keen sense of humour as well as the ability to concoct a puzzling mystery yarn.

 

Chicago Daily Tribune (Mortimer Quick, 6th May 1933, 60w):

All sorts of bewildering things occur which are more or less justified in the latter end.  It’s nicely written in the smart British manner, but its pathology is more convincing than its psychology.

 

Boston Transcript (7th June 1933, 80w):

There is not a character in it who talks or acts like a human being; the plot, to treat it kindly, is not inspired, and the story itself, lacking unity and coherence as it does, is dull.

 

Times Literary Supplement (Reginald Hill, 26th October 1984):

The combination of such richness of talent with an equal richness of productivity can result in much that is valuable and entertaining sinking deep beyond ready recovery.  The Hogarth Crime reprint series has been launched to rescue the “unjustly neglected”, itself often a questionable concept, but one more than justified here by Hogarth’s first two resuscitations.  Gladys Mitchell, whose output of over sixty crime novels almost predetermines neglect, is represented by The Saltmarsh Murders, a lively spoof of the “Guilt at the Vicarage” tradition, narrated by a Wodehousian curate who muddles about on the fringes of a crime involving murder, smuggling, bastardy, secret passages and a whole host of dotty characters till the dottiest of them all, not-yet-Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, acts as both God and His instrument in putting things to right.  Here is sheer delight, almost equalled in the other Hogarth reprint, Rex Stout’s The Hand in the Glove.  […]  Stout and Mitchell are minor county players without a doubt, but rereadable in a way that many pre-war successes in the big league of the “serious novel” will never be.