Gladys Mitchell and Mrs Bradley, an acquired taste?

Gladys Mitchell and Mrs Bradley, an acquired taste?

Gladys Mitchell (1910-1983) wrote 66 novels featuring her detective Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, a psychoanalyst with a brilliant mind, incisive views and an unorthodox view of crime and punishment.

A member of the Detection Club, Mitchell was ranked alongside Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. Unlike Christie and Sayers, Mitchell’s books dropped out of fashion. Her novels are being reprinted by Vintage and, as they say, can be found in all good bookshops.

Like Miss Marple, Mrs Bradley knits, but quickly and badly. You could trust Mrs B to solve a murder, but not to knit your winter woolly. Miss Marple bases her deductions on examples drawn from village life. Mrs Bradley draws on Freud and makes notes in tiny medico-legal calligraphy.

In The Saltmarsh Murders (1932) she meets “local celebrities” and her diagnoses include exhibitionism and a bad case of sadism plus inverted nymphomania. The narrator is Noel Wells, a young curate with “a head like a turnip.” Mitchell plays with the conventions of the genre, calling him her Boswell, Captain Hastings and Dr Watson.

A television series based on the books starred elegant Diana Rigg, who shares Mrs Bradley’s flamboyance and idiosyncrasies but not her appearance. Mrs Bradley smiles like a dragon. She is “a crocodile,” a “macaw,” “a lizard sunning itself.” Her mellifluous voice gives way to cackles of delight.

Death at the Opera (1934) sees Mrs Bradley taking up duties as form mistress in a progressive, co-educational school. She is here to investigate the death of arithmetic teacher Miss Calma Ferris. Miss Ferris, who taught lower forms only, was found drowned in a wash basin before her big moment on stage as Katisha in the end-of-term production of The Mikado. The coroner’s verdict was suicide, but the wash basin waste pipe had been carefully plugged with clay. The headmaster wants to know who murdered the inoffensive Miss Ferris. He trusts Mrs Bradley to find the killer without making a fuss. She will decide whether the police ought to be informed. Mrs Bradley does identify the murderer. The police are not informed. The story nicely confounds expectations about motives, a suitable victim, justice and retribution.

In Come Away, Death (1937), Sir Rudri Hopkinson, a deranged amateur archaeologist, sets off to recreate ancient rituals at the temple of Eleusis. The cast of characters includes gods, a rival scholar, lovers, a cruel photographer, a loyal retainer and jolly little boys (imps of Satan) who become Mrs Bradley’s helpers. Snakes, goats, dusty roads and a wild and a desolate landscape do not impair Mrs Bradley’s intellectual brilliance as she leads the reader through Greek myths and discovers who will die, and why.

If “the great Gladys” may be your cup of tea, pay a visit to this excellent tribute site for recommendations.

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