The Devil’s Elbow by Gladys Mitchell
And so we start another week of reading and talking about books from a particular year – and this time we’ve chosen 1951! As we’ve mentioned, there’s plenty of reading material to pick from, and I decided to begin with some classic crime in the form of a title from the very prolific Gladys Mitchell. I’ve written about the Great Gladys (as Philip Larkin called her) before, when I reviewed the first novel featuring her detective, Mrs. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley. A marvellous creation, Mrs. Bradley went on to feature in a staggering 66 titles and “The Devil’s Elbow” is number 24.
By the time she wrote this book, Mitchell was well into her stride with the Bradley series, and in some ways dropping into a sequence of books randomly like this leaves you at a bit of a disadvantage; there are regular characters you aren’t quite up to speed with, and you don’t have the whole history of the series at your fingertips. I felt that occasionally here, but it certainly didn’t spoil the enjoyment of reading!
The crime takes place on a coach trip to Scotland, and this is indeed the perfect setting for a murder mystery – a kind of updated version of the country house murder. However, Mitchell very cleverly rings the changes by having much of the action happening to, and narrated by (in extracts from letters) a young man who is the tour guide, George Jeffries. Fortunately for all concerned, when a murder takes place and George falls under suspicion, it transpires that his young lady is currently working for Mrs. Bradley. The latter takes off for Scotland hot-foot to investigate, with her regular Scotland Yard sidekick Detective-Inspector Gavin in tow; fortunately the latter is on leave and the local Scottish detective, Inspector Mactavish, is happy to have as much help as he can.
On the coach, of course, is a wonderful cross-section of society: some married couples, some unmarried lady couples, older people on their own or travelling with relatives (including a very enterprising and resourceful young man who will become a large part of the story), some man-mad young women, the odd spinster or two, and one particular character who is what we used to call ‘not quite right in the head’. This array of humanity gives Mrs. Bradley a chance to analyse merrily as well as giving the reader plenty of food for thought when it comes to working out who killed the victim.
Once the murder has taken place and Mrs. Bradley becomes involved there is plenty of action, particularly as the waters become muddied with the complication of a group of coach party members who went off for an impromptu boat trip (why? and is this significant as far as the murder is concerned?) There are plenty of red herrings, lots of energetic running around Scotland and detecting by George (accompanied by Robert, the enterprising young man, and Miss Carter, from one of the ladies’ couples), and meanwhile in the background Mrs. Bradley cackles away merrily, seeming to know just about everything and being able to hit the nail on the head every time with her deductions. I’m not going to say anything else about the plot (let’s face it, you can’t say too much about a murder mystery without risking spoilers), except to say that towards the end of the book I *did* pick up who the guilty party was – although that didn’t spoil the denouement at all!
“The Devil’s Elbow” was a wonderful read; cleverly written, entertaining and enjoyable, it was also surprisingly funny in places. Mitchell gets in some lovely asides, such as a sly reference to “Miss Joyce Grenfell’s portraits of exotic spinsters” and a telling discussion of the likelihood of a writer of crime novels actually committing a murder! If I had any criticism to make it would be the tiny one that the ending was perhaps ever so slightly rushed. Mind you, as I devoured the book in a couple of sittings, absolutely loving it, that might well have been my fault rather than the book’s! The device of the letters works well and helps the suspense build; the introductory scene at the beginning, where the letters are handed over to the detectives to read, has the corpse present but it isn’t identified, so the reader doesn’t know who’s going to be killed for some time.
As for Mrs. Bradley, she took a little bit of the back seat for chunks of the book, which was understandable in that she could hardly be expected to chase villains round the Scottish countryside, taking all sorts of physical actions I won’t go into! She’s a wonderful detective, and as I got myself reacquainted with her I found myself wondering again who in their right mind chose the very lovely Diana Rigg to play a crocodilian, wizened old woman in the TV adaptation! One thing did occur to me, though – Mrs. Bradley’s voice is meant to be a thing of beauty, a quality that recurs throughout the books. How is it, then, that she’s constantly described as ‘cackling’…?
So, a wonderful start to the #1951club! If you’ve never read any Gladys Mitchell I really can’t recommend her books highly enough – her work spans six decades and she was writing about Mrs. Bradley right up until her death in 1983. Let’s hope all the books this week are as good as “The Devil’s Elbow” – onward and upward!
It’s worth mentioning that Bill Bibliomane is a regular reader and reviewer of Mitchell’s work, both under her own name and pseudonyms; so if you have an interest in her work, pop over and have a look at his blog here.