Patricia Craig: "The Corpse in the Copse"

Patricia Craig on Gladys Mitchell:

"The Corpse in the Copse"

“I have heard of your work… More: I have read your books. Utter rubbish. How do you do?” Mrs. Bradley, Gladys Mitchell’s detective, and the person to whom this outspoken remark is addressed (in the 1930 novel The Longer Bodies), is not in the least put out by its rudeness. Nor does she seem at all discomposed when another character is struck by her resemblance to a serpent or a crocodile (she is undecided which). Add to this the fact that The Longer Bodies contains an old Scottish cook who counters every order from her mistress with the phrase “I’ll see masel’ drooned first” and it should be plain that we are in the realm of a form very difficult to carry off successfully, the humorous detective novel.

It is a form that Gladys Mitchell handled with great aplomb, for as long as it engaged her interest. But in fact her detective fiction has undergone quite a few changes since it began with Speedy Death in 1929, even though each of her novels features the same central character, the redoubtable Mrs. Bradley (later Dame Beatrice). For most of the 1930s, her objective was at least partly to satirise the conventions of the detective genre, and this resulted in a number of splendid comic works including Death at the Opera. The Saltmarsh Murders, praised by C. Day Lewis in 1942, is rather more serious in effect, but composed with an equal amount of gusto. In the early 1940s, the author seems to have lost direction for a while, turning out works of almost impenetrable obscurity, full of inconsistencies and even, uncharacteristically, lapses of style (Hangman’s Curfew, My Father Sleeps and Here Comes a Chopper are three examples). Interspersed with these, however, were excellent novels like St. Peter’s Finger, Laurels are Poison (“It is a sound instinct”, noted W. H. Auden, “that has made so many detective writers choose a college as a setting”) and the semi-autobiographical The Rising of the Moon, which is saturated in a dingy, tarnished, small-town atmosphere, and is quite distinct in feeling from the other books.

The Dancing Druids in 1948 marked the end of Gladys Mitchell’s middle and least successful phase, but we still find unnecessary convolution in plot-making as late as 1962 (My Bones Will Keep), and quite often the endings of her novels—the disclosure of the murderer’s identity—fail to provide a proper resolution, usually because the motive for killing is ludicrously inadequate. Only in the early comic novels is this defect turned on its head as the author exploits the discrepancy between something preposterously trivial and its outcome: in one instance, a piece of bad acting sparks off a murderous impulse in an elderly perfectionist. Two at least of Gladys Mitchell’s murderers are “absolutely unhinged on the subject of sexual relationships”, going in for wholesale slaughter as a warning to wantons. Once this spoof element disappears from the books, though, the murderers’ motives will not often stand up to scrutiny. When the time for explanations arrives, the author is usually forced to diagnose lunacy.

By 1950 the details of the killings have become less gory, with never a putrefying head, a boiled body, a bloody ear or a hacked-off hand in sight—nothing but a neat corpse lying inoffensively with its face in a gorse-bush. Dame Beatrice, too, is considerably more restrained in manner, and minor quirks like her taste in dress are toned down (no more tartan ties worn with orange and purple jumpers). In the most recent group of novels, dry retorts have begun to take the place of that disconcerting cackle which used to represent the detective’s method of dealing with the recalcitrant. Only the statutory gathering of impostors, dissemblers, intriguers and adventurers remains, to test the investigator’s powers as she returns each time to the scene of a murder. If she rents a castle, as in The Croaking Raven (1966), she is sure to find its owners lurking on or near the premises, concealing their true relations with one another and cheerfully embarking on wrongdoing when they think they can get away with it. (The fateful entrance of Dame B. and her party under their battlements is, of course, the beginning of the process of exposure.)

In the formal construction of her stories (especially from that of the 1978 offering Wraiths and Changelings on) and in the articulate sedateness of her dialogues, Gladys Mitchell’s work is coming more and more to resemble Ivy Compton Burnett’s, a writer whom she admires. The influence is quite overt. “‘So we await the judgement of Paris’, said Owen in the manner of Ivy Compton Burnett”, is a sentence which occurs halfway through her new novel, The Whispering Knights. Like Compton Burnett, too, she refuses to differentiate between comedy and tragedy, and this is one reason why her books are so memorable.

But Gladys Mitchell’s basic traits are all her own: she is a writer who can absorb influences without being overwhelmed by them. Literary allusions, jokes, ambiguities, unexpected twists and tricks are just a few of the devices she employs to fill the gaps left by necessarily incomplete characterisation. She possesses the kind of wit that sees a connection between the subject of an epitaph written by Ben Jonson and a murder victim in one of her own books, resulting in the name of the character Salathiel Pavy. She can't resist calling one of her murderers’ houses Weston Pipers, so that this may be changed, in the course of the story, to the very appropriate Nest of Vipers (the title of her last novel but two). And in The Whispering Knights the usual process of separating the sheep from the goats is complicated by the name of the girl who is to some extent the focus of interest: Capella, meaning “a stinking she-goat”.

The Whispering Knights, like The Dancing Druids, form a group of standing stones to which myth and superstition readily attach, providing an apt location for the re-enactment of a sacrifice to a god (the modern god is the usual one of cupidity). Gladys Mitchell has made a thorough study of all the prehistoric circles mentioned in her novel, in particular the Rollright Stones, Clava and Callanish on Lewis; and the information she has inserted unobtrusively into the text makes a bonus for the reader. No stone circle can fail to make an impression on anyone in the least susceptible; and the party depicted in this enthralling novel contains at least two young women who see things.

The most prominent member of the sightseeing group in The Whispering Knights is Dame Beatrice, whose presence gives rise to some speculation: has she or has she not been asked along to keep an eye on someone thought to be mentally unstable? (She is, as addicts will know, a psychiatrist attached to the Home Office.) And if so, is the person liable to run amok? Whatever the truth of this matter, we can be sure that something interesting will take place. What is even more surprising than the rate at which Gladys Mitchell’s novels are coming out (two a year for the past three years) is the fact that their store of wit, learning, assurance, vigour and stylishness is actually increasing. Julian Symons, in Bloody Murder placed her among those writers of the “Golden Age” whose work is now seldom discussed. Perhaps it’s time for a reappraisal.

Source: The Times Literary Supplement, 8 August, 1980, writer Patricia Craig.

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