I first became acquainted with Gladys Mitchell and her delightful amateur sleuth, Dame Beatrice Adele Lestrange Bradley (Mrs. Bradley for short), when I came across her novel Laurels Are Poison at my local library. I was struck at once by the book’s original and lively tone. It was a school set mystery (a favorite sub-genre) and was bristling with wit, memorable characters and a strong sense of place. I enjoyed the novel immensely, but for a number of reasons (mainly due to lack of availability of many of Ms. Mitchell’s titles), I didn’t return to the series until almost 20 years later.
Perhaps spurred on by the short-lived (and mostly unsuccessful) TV series starring Diana Rigg, The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries, several publishers have recently begun reprinting some of her most well-regarded works. Vintage Books (a subsidiary of Random House U.K.) is one of these. So far, Vintage has released 9 Mrs. Bradley novels, in simple yet pleasing, color-coded editions.This is a most welcome development, as Gladys Mitchell is an unfairly-neglected master of the Golden Age mystery, and deserves to be appreciated by a larger audience.
Mrs. Bradley herself is a wonderfully fun, colorful creation. Independently wealthy, twice widowed, a renowned psychologist with connections among all strata of society, unflappable in the face of danger and implacable in her search for the truth. Her appearance is somewhat alarming: "a small, shriveled, bird-like woman, who might have been thirty-five and who might have been ninety" with hands like "yellowed claws," a "sharp-featured, sardonic face" and bright black eyes like a bird of prey. She’s given to dressing in bright, gaudy clothing and "cackling hideously" to her own amusement. She’s not without her attractive points, however:
"Her voice was startling in that it belied her own appearance. Here was no bird-like twitter or harsh parrot cry, but a mellifluous utterance, rich and full, and curiously, definitely, superlatively attractive." (1)
Her calm and frank manner wins over most of the people she meets, and she has a particularly strong rapport with children. She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty, either, and moves with ease between manor house and moor, tracking killers, dodging knives, bullets and sundry other dangers. Despite her age, she possesses a "vice like grip" and is capable of great bursts of speed, and seems to have no fear.
All in all, Mrs. Bradley is a remarkable entertaining protagonist, and it’s no surprise really that she features in a stonking 66 novels (!), from 1929 to 1984 (her character enduring long past the Golden Age). By most accounts, the books from the first half of Ms. Mitchell’s career are the most consistently lively and clever. Part of the fun of discovering Gladys Mitchell is due to her wide variety of settings and styles. With so many books, she was forced to shake things up from time to time. Some titles are light and frothy, subtle parodies of classic detective story form, and some are somber, brooding mood pieces. And her writing is generally of a very high standard.
Come Away, Death (CAD) hails from this fertile early period, originally published in 1937. The 8th book in the series, it’s a curious beast in some ways. While a number of Mrs. Bradley books follow a more traditional detective novel format, CAD is much more novelistic in tone, more of a travelogue and character study, rich in mood and mysticism.
Here’s the blurb from the back cover of the Vintage Books edition:
"Sir Rudri Hopkinson, an eccentric amateur archaeologist, is determined to recreate ancient rituals at the temple of Eleusis in Greece in the hope of summoning the goddess Demeter. He gathers together a motley collection of people to assist in the experiment, including a rival scholar, a handsome but cruel photographer and a trio of mischievous children. But when one of the group disappears, and a severed head turns up in a box of snakes, Mrs Bradley is called upon to investigate..."(2)
Mitchell’s strong eye for local color and detail are obvious from the first page:
"Seated in the launch, waiting to be conveyed from the side of the S.S. Medusa to the shore, Mrs. Bradley found herself chiefly aware of the smell of sewage, which seemed, like a siren-song, to emanate form everywhere, subtle as the colours of the bay, and yet all-pervading as the sea mist through which the ship had sailed upon leaving England." (3)
Greece, with its careworn beauty, rich history and lively people, is really the overriding character of the novel, next to Mrs. Bradley, but the rest of the dozen or so supporting characters are brought vividly to life. Having been a teacher for most of her life, Ms. Mitchell is especially adept at depicting children, and here she captures three young boys in clear-eyed, non-cutesy detail. Their interactions with Mrs. Bradley are a delight.
Unusually for Mitchell, no murder occurs until well after the 200 page mark. Instead, the reader is treated to a slow but fascinating build-up of tension and dread atmosphere. We know something bad is going to happen, but only gradually does a likely murder victim become apparent.
This may tax the patience of those readers who like a more straightforward mystery plot. Mitchell does give us one, even if the ultimate reveal of the murderer is handled rather abruptly (though adroitly) in the final chapter.
Ultimately, the book is concerned more with the journey than the destination. The plot, while suitably audacious, is almost an afterthought here. This is a book which luxuriates in mood, atmosphere and character. Mitchell’s prose almost makes the mystical aspects of the various ancient temples and pagan beliefs become tangible and real, and the reader can practically feel the baking hot, dry Mediterranean heat.
The success of CAD for the mystery fan depends largely on what you read these sorts of books for. If you prefer fair-play plots and straight-up deduction, than this is probably not the best Mrs. Bradley novel to start with (better choices would be The Saltmarsh Murders, Death at the Opera, and When Last I Died, among many other more traditional entries in the series.)
But if you’re looking for something off the beaten track from the Golden Age detective norm, and are a fan of rich atmosphere and detailed characterization, then I can safely recommend CAD as an absorbing read.
For more information on Gladys Mitchell and the inimitable Mrs. Bradley, I highly recommend visiting Jason Hall’s terrific tribute site, The Stone House.
For an example of the BBC's bastardization...er, version of Mrs. Bradley, with a miscast Diana Rigg, click below:
Welcome to the Armchair...
Look out the window. It’s a dark, cold, rainy day. Too nasty to go outside.
Better stay inside, read a good book.
There’s a bookcase over to your left. Run your fingers over the spines. Books of all shapes, sizes and genres; hardbacks, paperbacks. Take your time browsing through the titles. No rush. Find something that feels just right.
Now turn around. Over in the corner is a beat-up, black leather armchair. The leather is faded and cracked in places, the cushions battered. This chair has seen better days. But boy, does it look inviting...
Next to the chair is a standing lamp and a small table. Plenty of room for a nice cup of tea, a plate of cookies, whatever’s your poison.
So switch on the light, settle down with your book, open to page one, put your feet up, and let the author whisk you away to another world.
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