When Last I Died (Gladys Mitchell)

Rating: 5 out of 5.


Like the classic ghost stories of M.R. James, to which this book is obviously an homage (“The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” is mentioned in a marvellously appropriate place), this book relies on under-statement to achieve its effects: a palpable sense of wrongness, of the supernatural, and of the bizarre. This is one of Mitchell’s masterpieces: innovative in form and approach, at once bizarre and realistic, inventively yet coherently plotted.

Mrs. Bradley is easily at the top of her form here: cynical and progressively-minded, and wonderfully perceptive throughout. She has shaken off her hooting / shrieking / prodding-people-in-the-ribs persona, and is more down to earth than in earlier novels, something When Last I Died — perhaps the grimmest and most down-to-earth of Mitchell’s early works — requires. One cannot have a comic Mrs. Bradley in a story with such a disturbing solution as this one. Instead, she is serious, detecting “with a grimness strange to see upon her dread yet, on the whole, good-humoured countenance”. And such detecting!

Renting a house by the seaside — the previous owner, Great-Aunt Flora (surname unknown), having choked to death on grated carrot — Mrs. Bradley discovers what is supposedly the diary of Bella Foxley, Great-Aunt Flora’s niece, who was put on trial for the murder of her cousin, the psychical researcher Tom Turney, acquitted, and later committed suicide, drowning herself in the village pond of the village of Pond, Hampshire. As the diary’s “frankness, lies, evasions, and inventions made up such a curiously unintelligible whole” — the first instance of applied historiography in detective fiction, preceding Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs and Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time — Mrs. Bradley suspects that the diary is fake. This marvellously entertaining document, lasting one-quarter of the book, details the events leading up to the murder of Tom Turney, the haunted house — “a house with foundations very much older than the present superstructure…a house so damp that the water marks the walls”, with “voices from under the feet…bellows and screeches of laughter”, with its poltergeist who throws things and rings bells, its footsteps and music heard in the night, and its coach and horse, driven by a headless driver, rattling around the courtyard in the middle of the night — superbly described. Suspecting that there is more to the Bella Foxley situation than meets the eye, Mrs. Bradley delves into the past, interrogating servants, doctors, reporters, and jurors; reading newspaper articles and the memoirs of the prosecuting counsel; and renting the haunted house from its owner, Bella Foxley’s sister Tessa, ostensibly to hold séances, but really to investigate the “poltergeist” activity she believes is crucial to the solution of the case. By the end, the reader firmly under her spell throughout, Mrs. Bradley has worked out the links between the poltergeist activity, the disappearance of two delinquents from the reformatory at which Bella Foxley was employed, the choking of Great-Aunt Flora, the murder of Tom Turney, the suicide in the village pond, and the diary; has made a particularly gruesome and stomach-churning discovery in the cellar (another triumph of understatement); and has caught the supremely nasty villain, one of Mitchell’s best characterised murderers, in an elaborate trap at the haunted house.

The plot and telling are both superb, but the icing on the cake is the style. There are eleven chapters in the novel (all with particularly apt chapter quotations which only make sense in hindsight): ten of which mirror each other (e.g., Chapters One & Eleven are “The Diary”, Chapters Three & Nine are “Counsel’s Opinion”), the middle chapter, Chapter Six, is “The Dear Departed”, tying in with the eerie title, and with the last line, “There really are such things as ghosts, and … occasionally they take a quite uncomfortable interest in human affairs”. A motif of food runs through the story: the opening line is “The lunch had consisted of sausage-meat roll, diced sewed and mashed potatoes; these covered with floury gravy and followed by tinned plums and custard” — particularly subtle when the reader knows the story, for food is invariably associated with death throughout the tale.

The only flaw in the story — and this is a very minor one — is Mitchell’s customary vagueness about details: the reader never learns Aunt Flora’s surname, and only learns the name of the haunted house on p. 181.

Contemporary reviews

The Observer (Maurice Richardson): THE CRIME RATION

Old Mrs. Bradley, sardonic benevolent psychologist, lively as a lizard, turns into an avenging fury in When Last I Died, which is perhaps Miss Mitchell’s best, most ingenious crime story yet.  Plot, going some way back into the past, hinges on elaborate, very neatly staged poltergeist haunting.  Victims of several murders include delinquent boys from reformatory.  Genuinely sinister with a really unpleasant murderess at the back of it.  Smoothly and clearly told.

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 3rd January 1942): NO ORDINARY CRIMINALS

No ordinary criminals cross Mrs. Bradley’s path.  Yet even in her enthralling career there has never been such evidence of devilish cunning and cruelty as she finds in When Last I Died.  What she is pretending to investigate is the activities of poltergeists in a haunted house.  That might be a task of sufficient interest for any normal inquiring mind.  To Mrs. Bradley it is one strand in a spider’s web.  Her discoveries are horribly gruesome—rather more than necessary according to all but the strongest stomachs—but there can be no withstanding the fascination of her methodical plodding from pillar to post.  Mrs. Bradley is a far better detective than some who have won world-wide fame.

The Spectator (John Fairfield, 23rd January 1942): When Last I Died is a pleasant relief, an honest detective story from never-never-land, where there are no wars.  The murders occur in a house run by bogus mediums, and the spiritualist background admits of pleasing complication.  Miss Mitchell is fair and straightforward about the solution of one problem, allowing the reader all the necessary information with scrupulous care; but the second she does her best to preserve as her own secret.  Once the reader spots the free use of red herrings, however, the second problem becomes an amusing battle between reader and author.  The story is agreeably written.

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 27th January 1942): Impossible, one feels, that anyone, expert in psychic research or novice, could take seriously poltergeist phenomena in a house whereof the county history recorded that it was provided with secret chambers and hidden passages.  That remains a weak point in When Last I Died, in which Miss Gladys Mitchell tells how Mrs. Bradley wonders why two boys, escaped from a reformatory, were never heard of again, comes across a curious and suspicious diary, and enters on a long investigation which leads her to a woman already concerned in three tragedies.  From one doubtful discovery to another Mrs. Bradley continues till in the end the dreadful truth is made clear.  Miss Mitchell has on occasion tried her readers a little highly by allowing mystery to become too much like confusion, but this time her narrative is clear, motives are distinct, complications are both bewildering and reasonable, and the tension of the pursuit ends in an exciting climax.  It is to be hoped, though, that Miss Mitchell’s introduction of mashed carrot as a lethal weapon will not affect the popularity of that former Cinderella and present Fairy Queen of the vegetable world.

Time (1st June 1942): This marks the welcome reappearance of Mrs. Adela Bradley, elderly, erudite and sardonic British dabbler in deduction.  From an old diary she gets her first clue to a trio of brutal slayings, holds an eerie investigation of a houseful of poltergeists, and finally scotches a cunning criminal.  Slow-motion at times, but a treat for connoisseurs.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 10th May 1942, 200w): It is a fascinating tale, even though it does, at times, make difficult reading.

New Yorker (16th May 1942, 60w): Her delving into the past is resourceful and exciting, and a very cool murderess is arrested for a crime already supposedly solved.  Substantial and psychologically reasonable.

Books (Will Cuppy, 17th May 1942, 200w): When Last I Died should go on your list pronto.  It’s sure-fire entertainment, done to a turn.

Sat R of Lit (23rd May 1942, 40w): Top grade.

Booklist (1st July 1942)

Bookmark (November 1942)