Tom Brown’s Body (Gladys Mitchell)

By Gladys Mitchell

First published: UK, Michael Joseph, 1949

Blurb (UK)

Mitchell - Tom Brown's Body.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Mrs. Bradley, indefatigable as ever in the pursuit of her somewhat eccentric interests, had been searching for a book on witchcraft written by an ancestress.  She traced it to a village not far from Spey School; and there the story might have ended, had not two boys, who had broken out of the school at night, heard one of the masters talk of murder.  Shortly after a junior master was killed: he was drowned and his body placed just within the school gates: and, naturally, Mrs. Bradley’s plans were abruptly changed.

‘Mrs. Bradley is easily the best woman detective in fiction,’ wrote the News Chronicle reviewer, and in Tom Brown’s Body she is at her brilliant and malicious best.

My review

Mrs. Bradley arrives in Spey village in order to purchase a book dealing with her ancestor Mary Toadflax from the local village witch, one Lecky Harries, who has dealings with two of the masters at Spey School, one of whom is later found murdered in the other’s garden, shortly after the discovery of a decapitated black cockerel there. The witchcraft is nicely tied in, and the end is remarkable—Mitchell deals with a world full of the uncanny (the ‘reconstruction’ of the crime is amazing). The supernatural also occurs in the form of a monstrously tall thing wearing a Tibetan devil-mask which pushes one of the victim’s lovers down a flight of stairs, and in the form of ‘Hecate at School House’—Mrs. Bradley herself. Other Mitchell elements turn up: a pair of twins—one dislikes girls and sex; (mock) decapitation of an idol; and dead animals. The detection is a mixture of psycho-analysis, witchcraft / mumbo-jumbo, and police detection—this is as satisfying as anything in Blake, Carr or Christie, while being more original. The writing is zestful and witty, and the story is what an ideal detective story should be. One of the best scholastic mysteries ever written.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 24th July 1949):

Mrs. Bradley smells out murderer of an obnoxious young form-master at a very unusual public school with Roman Bath and negro fly-half, clandestine love affairs among the staff, and a housemaster’s sister, who joins in the paper-chase.  Any amount of moonshine, including a witch who instantly recognises old Mother B. as a dear colleague.  Very lively.  Keeps you guessing.


Times Literary Supplement (12th August 1949):

The reader who can appreciate the humour of the “saurian” Mrs. Bradley, Miss Mitchell’s well-known woman detective, and her curious predilection for black magic, will probably enjoy this story of a murder in a boy’s school and as always, Miss Mitchell’s schoolboys are satisfyingly real.