The Twenty-third Man (Gladys Mitchell)

By Gladys Mitchell

First published: UK, Michael Joseph, 1957

My review


‘Nothing is a serious offence on Hombres Muertos, dear lady. We are all dead men here, and among the dead there is the harmony of disinterested mercy.’

This tale of murder on the Canary Island (although some believe it is Tiberius’ Capri — and the inhabitants are as bizarre as the inhabitants of the early first century!) of Hombres Muertos, named after the “dead men, twenty-three of them, who sat around a stone table in the cave of Monte Negro, the highest mountain on the island and so called because of the dark, sculptured waves of lava which had flowed from the crater and congealed above the cavern”, is a particularly rich and exotic story, even by Gladys Mitchell’s standards. As always, Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, “a truly incongruous figure, the spare and upright, black-haired, quick-eyed psychiatrist, humorous, shrewd, and mellowed”, is the detective. Dame Beatrice has mellowed. Indeed, she no longer screeches or cackles; but she is as alert and as active as ever, narrowly escaping death on more than one occasion, although her main method of disconcerting suspects is verbal rather than physical, as these examples show:

‘Just a passing thought.’

‘I believe that thoughts should linger. I am inclined to distrust vapours and thin airs.’

‘Yes, and there’s such a thing as thin ice,’ said Peterhouse, half to himself. Dame Beatrice gazed at him and raised her black eyebrows.

‘Thin ice?’ she inquired. ‘You believe we are treading on thin ice?’

and again:

‘That was the situation in a nutshell. Are you satisfied?’

‘Except in fairy stories, that which can be contained in a nutshell is of little importance. Tell me more.’

‘Diamonds can be put in a nutshell.’

‘I do not regard diamonds as important.’

‘Lives have been hazarded and lost because of them.’

‘We are asking ourselves why Emden’s life was lost.’

She comes to the island on holiday, and promptly finds herself involved with a particularly odd lot of characters, including a psychopathic botanist, an ornithologist who might double as a procurer, a libertine, and a young widow and her brother, all of whom — with one exception — are all mad, mentally unbalanced, or merely eccentric, leading her to remark that, like the Garden of Eden, Hombres Muertos is ‘complete with more than one serpent.’ That one exception is Clun, a manslaughter, and, apart from Dame Beatrice and her secretary Laura Gavin (complete with child), the most sympathetic character. As suits the exotic clime in which the story unfolds, the actions of the characters are equally exotic, and form “a strange tangle of events”, including “the murder by a gang of thugs of an unloved husband in England; the hysteria of a young widow on the first expedition to the cave of the dead men; the unwanted attentions of a man who finished by getting an island knife in his back and who had been raised to regal status after his death; the pimps, trulls, and trollops organised — or not — by a watcher of birds; a metamorphosis of orchids; a coward who ran away and left his companion to die; a Spanish hotel-keeper who had a jealously guarded daughter and a South American son; the brigands who might be more bloodthirsty than they seemed; … and a man who had been in prison for manslaughter (probably with extenuating circumstances).” Yet, although the suspects are all on Hombres Muertos, Dame Beatrice believes the solution lies in England, and, sending Laura to the isle in her place, returns home to look through the police records relating to two deaths in the histories of the suspects, and, much to her surprise, discovers both that three characters “were all sewn up in the same parcel … matter much more suitable to the dramas of Ancient Greece than to the world of the present century”, and a hidden relationship, so that “the puzzle, … far from getting itself unravelled, seems in more of a mess than ever.” Let not the reader be put off, however, for the solution is complex but clear, and one of Mitchell’s most inevitable. In short, this is first-class Mitchell, zestful and inventive.

Contemporary reviews

Spectator (Christopher Pym, 1st November 1957):

As that tiresome old trout Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley becomes noticeably less grotesque and more human, her creator’s backgrounds become ever more bizarre.  This time, the corpse is discovered among a score or so of embalmed and death-masked ancient monarchs in a cave on an exotic island and not among the living troglodytes, as had been expected.  (And what a thing to expect!).  Gladys Mitchell wields a pen stylish enough for something better than this.


Observer (Maurice Richardson, 10th November 1957):

Mrs. Bradley—now Dame Beatrix, “Psychiatric Consultant to the Home Office”—on holiday in the Canaries, watching the lizards at play.  Hotel full of homicidal psychopaths.  What with bandits, troglodytes, and a cave of mummified kings, the canvas is a bit overcharged.  Plenty of stabbing.


Manchester Guardian (Francis Iles, 3rd January 1958):

One can usually rely on Miss Gladys Mitchell for something unexpected, and in The Twenty-third Man she certainly provides it.  A sub-tropical volcanic island, with twenty-three mummified kings sitting round a stone table in a cave; comic-opera brigands; the unobtrusive appearance of a twenty-fourth body at the table; a community of troglodytes; and an impossible but fascinating small boy who is really a projection of the formidable Mrs. Bradley herself in miniature—these make a typical Mitchell confection, added to a diffuse and complicated plot revealed stage by stage with all Miss Mitchell’s cunning.  The publishers tell us that Miss Mitchell herself considers this her best book: and who should know better?