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#1951club – Off to a cracking start with Mrs. Bradley!

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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.

Desperately dull modern cover

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.

Beautiful vintage cover

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.

The actual Devil’s Elbow with a wonderful vintage coach!

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!

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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.

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Golden Age High-Jinks from Masters (and Mistresses!) of the Genre

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Ask a Policeman by members of The Detection Club

Many moons ago, back in my teenage years, I discovered Agatha Christie; in those days pre-Young Adult books, she was an ideal author when making the transition to adult books. I gradually collected all of her works over the years – from jumble sales (happy memories), charity shops and second-hand bookshops. It was lovely to get a complete set, but even more exciting was the appearance in the early 1980s of “The Scoop” and “Behind the Screen” – two short stories written by members of the famous Detection Club, including Christie, Sayers and many others. I still have my trusty paperback (and I did have another of their works, “The Floating Admiral”, which I’m sure should be somewhere on the shelves…)

ask a policeman

However, a recent hunt in one of the local charity shops revealed this volume – “Ask A Policemen”, another group effort, by John Rhode, Helen Simpson, Gladys Mitchell, Anthony Berkeley. Dorothy L. Sayers and Milward Kennedy. As a bonus, the book features a rare essay by Agatha Christie where she discusses her fellow writers and an excellent introduction by the doyen of vintage crime (and current chair of the Detection Club) Martin Edwards.

The plot of “Ask A Policeman” is a dramatic one: unpleasant newspaper tycoon Lord Comstock has many enemies, owing to his papers’ constant attacks on religion and the police force. He’s found murdered in his country home and surprisingly enough has just been visited by a government Chief Whip, an Archbishop and the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard! All have motives and all are therefore suspects, as is Comstock’s slightly dodgy secretary, Mills. Then there is the gardener, the manservant and a mysterious woman seen on the lawn…

A 1932 Dinner of the Detection Club -  from http://margaretperry.org/

A 1932 Dinner of the Detection Club – from http://margaretperry.org/

Because of the suspicions around Scotland Yard, the Home Secretary takes the unusual step of asking four amateurs to investigate: Mrs Adela Bradley, Sir John Saumarez, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Mr Roger Sheringham – of course nobody dares to ask a policeman! All have a wonderful pedigree as detectives, but the storytelling waters become somewhat muddy, as the Detection Club members swap sleuths! Thus Helen Simpson tells her tale through Mrs. Bradley, Gladys Mitchell tackles Sir John Saumarez, Dorothy L. Sayers writes of Roger Sheringham and Anthony Berkeley provides Lord Peter Wimsey’s investigations. Milward Kennedy and John Rhode set the scene and round up the story at the end, while the poor addled reader tries to work out whodunnit!

AAP is a wonderfully enjoyable read; cleverly conceived and written, full of red herrings, with plenty of humour and sly little digs at the various detectives and their foibles. The four central writers have great fun playing with each others’ characters and I felt that they brilliantly caught the voice of the original authors (although I can’t tell about Sir John as I haven’t read any of Helen Simpson’s work). The sleuths all have their usual milieu and sidekicks (barrister son Ferdinand for Mrs. Bradley; Inspector Parker and Bunter for Wimsey) and all their little quirks are present, but perhaps exaggerated a little. The mystery was complex and each detective came up with a different and entirely credible solution! Milward Kennedy revealed the real answer to the puzzle, and admitted that he really didn’t play fair with the reader!

As for Christie’s essay, it’s quite a revealing piece of work. Initially written to be translated into Russian to introduce British crime writers to that country, the fact that it was never likely to be read by any of the other writers allowed Christie to be unguarded in her comments about her peers. It’s nice to know she rates Sayers so highly!

All in all, AAP was an excellent read, and I’m starting to think that Martin Edwards deserves a knighthood for services rendered to Golden Age crime, what with his British Library Crime Classics involvement and this. And I believe there is another volume, “Six Against The Yard”, lurking out there somewhere – I really *must* track down a copy…. 🙂

in which there *will* be casualties…

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Yes, I’m afraid I really *will* have to start pruning after this weekend’s arrivals – and try to decide which of the books on Mount TBR I am realistically likely to read, and which will have to go…

Clearing out bookshelves is not something I enjoy doing, as I always regret it – my Mapp and Lucia books, for example, and “Madame Solario” – both of which I’ve missed recently. But there are only so many shelves and only so much time left to read – the house will only hold so much before it bursts 😦

These are this week’s culprits:

and I have perfectly good reasons for buying them all!!

The Antonia White diaries is a Virago – which is reason enough, particularly as her “Frost in May” has the honour of being the first VMC! ‘Nuff said.

“Recovery” by Stephen Benatar sounded intriguing – Benatar himself sounds intriguing! Plus I have his “Wish Her Safe At Home” on Mount TBR and this can keep it company. And it’s signed by the author too!

“Twelve Horses….” is by Gladys Mitchell and it’s a vintage green crime Penguin, so once again that’s a no-brainer – there’s no way it was going to stay on the Oxfam shelf.

Zamyatin’s “We” – well, of course, I already have two other editions of this book. But I owned this particular edition with its lovely cover once and loaned it to Eldest Child for a university module. I don’t recall seeing it since…. so of course felt the need to replace it.

And lastly Heinrich Boll – an author I’ve never read, although since he’s a Nobel winner I should have. This is his first novel and it’s short too – so I was intrigued enough to try it.

Now for some painful violence on the shelves…..

Recent Reads: Speedy Death by Gladys Mitchell

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You can’t go wrong with classic crime, can you? Well, I don’t think so, anyway! I was kind of up in the air after my read of “The Tiger in the Smoke”, not quite knowing what to read next. So I did my usual trick which is plump for a vintage murder mystery – and you don’t get much more vintage than this!

Gladys Mitchell and her wonderful detective Mrs. Bradley have been favourites of mine for years – I owned many of her books in the past, but they vanished in the purge mentioned in my last post which was a mistake, as I’ve now had to re-buy new copies. Truly, getting rid of books is a bad idea. Anyway, “Speedy Death” is Mitchell’s first Mrs. Bradley book, and I have a lovely 1980s Hogarth Press purple edition!

speedy

The book was published in 1929 and the action is firmly set in that decade by the opening, with two young men meeting a woman from a train. She is Dorothy, the men are Garde Bing and Bertie Philipson, both of whom are in love with her – but it is Garde to whom she engaged. The three drive off to the Bings’ country house where they’re staying for the weekend along with a very motley collection of fellow guests: including the famous explorer Everard Mountjoy, who is engaged to the daughter of the house, Eleanor Bing; Eleanor and Garde’s father, Alistair; the scientist Carstairs, who fancies himself as a detective; and of course the wonderful Mrs. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, noted psychoanalyst.

It doesn’t take long for a guest to be found dead in the bath. Although the host is reluctant to accept this as anything but an accident, another murder attempt follows and the wonderfully-named Inspector Boring comes to investigate. Needless to say, he has no idea, and it’s left to Mrs. Bradley to find out the truth, protect a variety of young women from peril and get to the bottom of everything.

Reading Gladys Mitchell is such fun! Her writing is sharp and funny, the setting beautifully conjured up and the characters well fleshed-out. There’s plenty of drama and, as I recall from earlier readings, the plot is quite dark in places, almost melodramatic. The resolution is satisfying and the final action tense, and we are lucky enough to be introduced to Mrs. Bradley’s son! However, there is one plot device, quite an important one, which is never really explained – if you’ve read the book, you’ll probably know what I mean!

This is a remarkably assured debut for Mrs. Bradley and actually, quite an audacious one. As if she was trying to make her mark on detective fiction, Mitchell presents the reader with a very unconventional detective, and puts her through some rather unusual experiences! But then, Mrs. Bradley is an appealingly unusual character: described as bird-like (in a birds of prey kind of way!) and ugly, she’s certainly not a fluffy little Miss Marple or a lofty Lord Peter. All Golden Age detectives *do* have their own quirk, however, and Mrs. Bradley is a very astute woman – able to see through people’s behaviour, analyse their motives and predict the outcome of events. She’s quite manipulative too, and has a very strong sense of justice, which leads her to some unusual actions…

g_mitchell

I don’t want to say too much about the plot because the twists and turns and the denouement are excellent. Suffice to say, it’s as startling as some of the most innovative Christies and that’s high praise indeed. I’d forgotten quite how much I loved Gladys Mitchell’s books and I can see I’ll be spending more time in the company of Mrs. Bradley in the future!

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