Gladys Mitchell

The Devil at Saxon Wall by Gladys Mitchell

Title: The Devil at Saxon Wall
Author: Gladys Mitchell
First published in 1935

Plot Summary from Goodreads: The quaint, cozy village of Saxon Wall is hiding a dark, sinister reality. When fiction author Hannibal Jones retires to Saxon Wall in hopes of reinvigorating his writing career, he instead finds himself in the midst of an increasingly puzzling and dangerous situation. Eccentric villagers and stories of curses, demons, and blood sacrifices abound. A devastating drought and imposing vicar escalate the pervasive fear until Hannibal Jones feels compelled to call in his good friend and detective, Mrs. Beatrice Lestrange Bradley. An alarming tale of a missing baby and suspicious deaths comes to light. And soon Bradley and Jones are at the center of a mystery wrought with conspiracy, murder…and witchcraft.

This classic caper promises to entertain, frighten, and intrigue as you revel in the antics of the gloriously unorthodox sleuth Mrs. Bradley.

This was my second Mrs. Bradley mystery, after The Saltmarsh Mystery, and I think that I can say at this point that Mrs. Bradley is quite unlike any of the other golden age mystery series that I’ve read so far. The book begins with a long preliminary tale about the ill-fated Constance who marries the enigmatic, possibly psychotic, Hanley Middleton. The first section of the book is identified as “First Manifestation: Domestic Interior,” which describes the abusive marriage of Constance and Hanley, and the ultimate death of Constance in child birth after she returns to her home in Saxon Wall, having previously fled back to her parents. Hanley follows Constance in death a short time later.

The second section of the book is titled “Second Manifestation: Conversation Piece“. I have no idea why it’s called this, actually, because there is precious little intelligent conversation in this book, and a whole lot of garbled confusion. At the beginning of the section, we are introduced to the main character of the book, one Hannibal Jones, described thus:

Hannibal Jones had earned a dishonest livelihood for seventeen years by writing sentimental novels. It was the less excusable in Jones to get his living this way in that he knew—none better, since he had lectured in Abnormal Psychology for a year or two in an American university before taking up his rather more nefarious career as author—that such novels as he wrote tended to encourage morbid daydreaming on the part of their readers, and that cooks and dressmakers, mothers of families, spinsters in all walks of life—even his own female relatives—were developing, because of him and his works, a Cinderella-complex of the most devitalising, time-consuming type.

Hannibal, who is quite rich as a result of his success as a writer, has some sort of a nervous breakdown when he accepts a large publishers advance for a book he doesn’t really want to write. He consults Mrs. Bradley, and she gives him advice to “get out your third-best car and travel until you find a sufficiently interesting and secluded village. Make yourself part of it. Study the people, but resolve never to write about them in a novel. Love them. Quarrel with them. Begin a lawsuit. Play village cricket.”

Somehow, he has the misfortune to end up in Saxon Wall, which must be the most terrible place in all of England, full of villagers who are downright creepy, baby-switchers, a psychotic vicar, and a drought which means that they are all, apparently, going to die of dehydration. Jones realizes that he is in the middle of some kind of devilish psychodrama and invites Mrs. Bradley in to help him solve the crimes, of which there are many.

The plot of this book made almost no sense. It was so convoluted that I couldn’t follow the thread at all, much less unravel it. Saxon Wall is a singularly horrible place, and the denizens of Saxon Wall are singularly horrible people. There wasn’t a single non-horrible person living there. Jones himself was confounding – why he didn’t just get in his car and drive the hell out of that place I cannot begin to imagine. Mitchell brings in witchcraft, folklore, and beer to add to the altogether strange tale. Mrs. Bradley shows up at about the 505 mark to untangle the skeins of the mystery, but even at the end I was left somewhat puzzled by everyone’s behavior.

“The temperament,” repeated Mrs. Bradley. “Yes, child. As good psychologists, we ought not to lose sight of that important item. The temperament for murder—an inexhaustibly interesting subject. I have it, you have it, the vicar has it. Mrs. Tebbutt has it, Doctor Mortmain has it. To how many other people in Saxon Wall would you say it has been vouchsafed?”

Everyone, dear reader. Everyone.

The third section contains some brief End Notes, which try to explain the book. They clear up a few things. But only a few things.

One of the most curious and interesting features of the general mentality, if such a term is permissible, of the inhabitants of Saxon Wall, was a noticeable inability to distinguish between essential good and essential evil.

I can’t say that I really enjoyed this book, but it did keep me interested, even if it was totally bananas.

Gladys Mitchell

The Saltmarsh Murders by Gladys Mitchell

Title: The Saltmarsh Murders
Author: Gladys Mitchell
Series: Mrs. Bradley #4
First published: 1932

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Noel Wells, curate in the sleepy village of Saltmarsh, likes to spend his time dancing in the study with the vicar’s niece, until one day the vicar’s unpleasant wife discovers her unmarried housemaid is pregnant and trouble begins.

It is left to Noel to call for the help of sometime-detective and full-time psychoanalyst Mrs Bradley, who sets out on an unnervingly unorthodox investigation into the mysterious pregnancy, an investigation that also takes in a smuggler, the village lunatic, a missing corpse, a public pillory, an exhumation and, of course, a murderer.

Mrs. Bradley is easily one of the most memorable personalities in crime fiction and in this classic whodunit she proves that some English villages can be murderously peaceful.

Opinionated, unconventional, unafraid… If you like Poirot and Miss Marple, you’ll love Mrs Bradley.

This was my first foray into the long-running Mrs. Bradley series by Gladys Mitchell. Ms. Mitchell was born in 1901, and published her first Mrs. Bradley mystery, A Speedy Death, in 1929. She was a prolific author, publishing 66 of the Mrs. Bradley mysteries. She was also a teacher in girls schools for many years (now I’m thinking Miss Bulstrode, from The Cat Among the Pigeons), and was an early member of the Detection Club along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. She was more prolific than both.

The Saltmarsh Murders is book #4 in the series. I’ve never seen the Diana Riggs BBC adaptation, from 1998-2000, and this series didn’t really make it onto my radar screen until a friend referenced it in a blog post. After seeing the reference, I jumped over to Amazon to find out more and noted that all of the Mrs. Bradley books are available in the Kindle Unlimited Library. I’ve not yet cancelled my KU subscription, so I decided to check out one of them and see what I thought. This was literally a stab in the dark. I liked the title – it sound appropriately atmospheric – so I downloaded it and started reading.

Mrs. Bradley’s full name is Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, which is just too good for me to overlook. The book is partially narrated by a young curate, and I was getting some (erroneous) Murder of Roger Ackroyd vibes from his narration. It’s a quirky tale, and I was frankly surprised, and not really convinced, by who-actually-dun-it. Mrs. Bradley herself was eccentric, and somewhat peculiar, not to mention physically hideous (she is variously described as crocodilian and reptilian, her hands clawlike). But it was fun to read, and I want to read more so I can get a better handle on the series.

According to Wikipedia, critical opinion is divided on what is her best work, her strengths and style can be gleaned from the following 16 books: The Saltmarsh Murders (1932), Death at the Opera (1934), The Devil at Saxon Wall (1935), Come Away, Death (1937), Brazen Tongue (1940), When Last I Died (1941), The Rising of the Moon (1945), Death and the Maiden (1947), The Dancing Druids (1948), Tom Brown’s Body (1949), Groaning Spinney (1950), The Echoing Strangers (1952), Merlin’s Furlong (1953), Dance to Your Daddy (1969), Nest of Vipers (1979), and The Greenstone Griffins (1983). This provides a helpful entree into the series.

There is a Gladys Mitchell tribute site, which can be found here, and which provides additional resources.