January 2012

Lee Randall

features

Rediscovering Gladys Mitchell

Like so many love affairs, this one started with a chance meeting. Gladys Mitchell appeared in my life one day when a trio of her novels tumbled out of a puffy envelope, and caught my eye as surely as if they’d winked. They were sleek, stylish reissues from Vintage Classics, whose elegantly subdued covers gave me the come hither look.

The cover puffs were equally enticing: “Superbly odd,” said the Independent. “Crime writing’s best-kept secret,” said my own paper, The Scotsman. “Among the most revered names in British mystery fiction,” wrote the Washington Post.

Secret indeed! Why hadn’t I heard of Mitchell? My mother was a mystery fiend, with shelves filled with the titles, all with a strong Anglophile slant. Scanning her spines gave me a good working knowledge of the genre’s authors -- but Mitchell came as a surprise. I later found out that few of her novels had been published in the US, where I grew up.

Yet none other than Philip Larkin called her “The Great Gladys,” and she also counted among her friends GK Chesteron -- whom I admire greatly, and who welcomed Mitchell into the prestigious Detection Club, alongside the likes of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. Indeed, throughout the 1930s, Mitchell was considered one of the “Big Three” female detection novelists. My curiosity was further piqued when I read that Mitchell studied the works of Sigmund Freud and had an abiding interest in witchcraft.

I jammed those reissued books into my handbag and have been greedily collecting each new volume, as well as hunting them down online (Rue Morgue Press sells several Mitchell titles).

I don’t read Mitchell -- I inhale her, laughing my socks off the entire time. The novels are as addictive as popcorn, but reading them only makes me hungrier. It’s a shameful admission, but I can’t tell you the plot of any of the books from memory, or reliably recall the identities of the killers. What I can say without a doubt is that Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley is one of the most memorable characters in fiction. The real mystery for me, and the reason I devour the novels, isn’t whodunit, but who is she?

Bradley was the heroine of nearly 70 novels, starting with A Speedy Death, in 1929, and ending with a novel published in 1984, the year after Mitchell’s death. Unlike most heroines, who are depicted in a rosy light, Bradley is invariably described as frighteningly ugly. When she appears in Speedy Death, she’s “dry without being shriveled, and bird-like without being pretty.” The man describing her is reminded of a pterodactyl he once saw in a German museum: “There was the same inhuman malignity in her expression... and like it, she had a cynical smirk about her mouth even when her face was in repose. She possessed nasty, dry, claw-like hands, and her arms, yellow and curiously repulsive, suggested the plucked wings of a fowl.”

It’s possible that the description is so unsparing because Mitchell never intended her to be the novel’s heroine. She explained that Bradley took command of the narrative, dragging its author with her.  

Bradley’s saving grace -- apart from her intellectual genius and eccentric morality -- is her voice: “[it] belied her appearance, for... her utterance was slow, mellifluous, and slightly drawled; unctuous, rich, and reminiscent of dark, smooth treacle.” That voice entrances men, women and children, especially the latter, who adore Bradley unreservedly from the word go. That love is reciprocated, and I wonder whether Bradley’s affinity for children stems from the author’s lifelong day job, as a teacher. Children feature often in the novels, and are invariably drawn sympathetically, with a tremendous awareness of how their young minds operate.

Bradley’s personality is not her only colourful trait. Despite vast personal wealth that would allow her to shop at the finest couture houses, Bradley loathes fashion, and you can be sure she will turn up in the most frightful combinations. She’ll mix sage-green with purple and yellow, turns up to one event in a lavender suit with a yellow toque covered in yellow velvet pansies and drags out an old, orange and royal blue evening gown for formal occasions. In repose she favours gem-coloured silk dressing gowns embroidered with gold, red and bronze dragons.

Bradley is a physician and a psychiatrist, descended from witches, and possibly one herself. In 1955 she was made a Dame, and in one novel she works as a psychiatric consultant for the Home Office -- though her duties can’t be too onerous, since she spends the bulk of the book traipsing back and forth from London -- by ship -- to the island of Hombres Muertos (best guesses say it’s Capri).

If I am hazy on the details of Bradley’s biography, then blame Mitchell. There are some fond and thorough essays on the subject at the Gladys Mitchell Tribute site, which make it clear that the author didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about consistency. In some places she writes of Bradley’s three husbands, in others, there have only been two. There’s no clear answer as to the quantity of sons she’s given birth to, though apart from Ferdinand, by her first husband, she adamantly prefers her nephews and great nephews. Mitchell made the sensible choice to freeze Bradley’s age while allowing the novels to move with the times. It’s just as well. Bradley was fifty-five when Speedy Death introduced her, in 1929, which would have made her around 130 when the last book appeared.

Brilliant and physically adroit, Bradley is, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect. Mitchell understood that this was an antagonizing factor. “She is never wrong... she has a godlike quality of being much larger than life, and of being so much superior to ordinary people that she can afford to be benign and kind even to my murders, who seldom get hanged (in the old days) or suffer life imprisonment (in the later books).”

That may be true, but Bradley’s not above committing murder herself, or engineering circumstances so that the guilty party meets his or her end without going through the so-called proper channels. In Dead Men’s Morris, the sixth Mrs Bradley outing, she tells her nephew Carey that whoever murdered two locals “hasn’t done much harm.”

“You don’t hold human life sacred?”

“Well, not more so than other life,” said Mrs Bradley. “Why should I?”

No, conventional morality doesn’t govern these novels, and in that, Mitchell cleverly mirrors the dilemma facing most readers of the genre: on the one hand, we want to see justice done, but on the other hand, we quite often lust for the blood of the baddies, which makes us no better than the killers. Or does it?

In an essay for the journal Armchair Detective that’s reprinted on the tribute site (as is Sarjeant’s essay, cited below) Nicholas Fuller, who moderates the Gladys Mitchell club at Yahoo, wrote: “Bradley understands murderers’ motivations so thoroughly that she doesn’t have a conventional view of justice, and sometimes makes sure the murderer is killed somehow, even if not by the law. She believes that murder’s roots lie in psychology of both the killer and the victim.”

In the scope of her subject matter, and her lack of squeamishness, Mitchell reminds me of that other great iconoclast Colette, for her novels feel years ahead of their times. William Sarjeant writes: “She is entirely self-assured in her judgments, treating adulterous relationships with sympathy, liberal in her opinions of such things as ‘filthy’ postcards and erotic literature, and arguing for birth control – all these even in books published before 1935 (which was decidedly adventurous of her creator!)”

I also completely agree with his summation of the novels’ enduring appeal: “[First] there is a richness of texture and variety of flavor calculated to appeal to the jaded reading palate. Secondly, there is the unexpectedness of the stories, the fascinating unpredictability of pace, plot, and solution. Thirdly, there is the great diversity of settings, from the solidity of English universities and colleges to the windy wildness of stone rings on remote Hebridean islands. Fourthly, there are the fascinations of a specialized knowledge, of folklore, witchcraft, classical literature, and British or Mediterranean landscapes. Fifthly, and perhaps most importantly of all... there is the wit and sense of humor -- a humour of comment and observation, sometimes ‘black’ but only rarely slapstick -- that pervades her writings.”

The humour owes much to Mitchell’s use of language, and particularly to an old fashioned syntax that never fails to enchant this reader. Think Nancy Mitford, and you’ll know what I mean. These delicious turns of phrase mean more to me than finding out who actually “dunnit,” though they ring hollow on the page quoted out of context.

Finally, I also admire Mitchell’s respect for her readers. In common with Elizabeth Taylor, she plunges us right into the action, convinced enough of her own powers of evocation that we will get up to speed without acres of expository narrative. And she never insults by over-explaining her themes. If, for example, a book’s plot centres on Greek mythology, she trusts that we are educated enough to grasp her references.

I’ve been torturing myself with the thorniest of “Fantasy Dinner Party” conundrums: would I rather invite Mitchell herself, or Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley? It’s an impossible quandary.