Saturday, January 23, 2010
The Saltmarsh Murders - Gladys Mitchell
Gladys Mitchell was one of the lesser Queens of Crime of the Golden Age. Never as popular as Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers, she was prolific, writing more than 60 books. Vintage have begun republishing her books & I’ve just read The Saltmarsh Murders. I read the first half in fits & starts so I found it quite hard to work out who was who. As Martin Edwards blogged earlier this week, I’d have been quite grateful for a cast list at the beginning! Yesterday afternoon I read the rest of the book. Apart from a horribly stereotypical portrait of a black manservant, Foster Washington Yorke, (the book was first published in 1932) the characters were the typical inhabitants of an English village mystery, although they’re all either eccentric or unpleasant. Narrated by the curate, Noel Wells, the mystery concerns the murder of Meg Tosstick, the former maidservant at the Vicarage, who was dismissed for being pregnant & was murdered nearly a fortnight after the birth of her baby. The baby has also disappeared. Meg wouldn’t talk about the father of her baby, except to say that it wasn’t Bob Candy, her former admirer. Speculation is increased when the baby isn’t seen by anyone except Mrs Lowry, the owner of the pub where Meg took refuge. Some even doubt there was a baby. Meg was murdered on the evening of the August Bank Holiday fete, so there’s ample opportunity for confusion over alibis. The police arrest Bob as Meg had refused to see him & his only chance to see her was on that night as he was barman at the pub & the owners were at the fete, leaving Meg unguarded. He admits he did see her & they talked but she wouldn’t tell him who the father of the child was, & he left her alive when he went downstairs to work. Another young woman also disappears, apparently after an argument with her volatile boyfriend & this only adds to the plot. There’s an exhumation, a search of a nearby stone quarry, a trial & a village concert, before the truth is revealed. Mitchell’s detective is Mrs (later Dame) Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley. She’s staying at the squire’s house & Noel enlists her help in tracking down the murderer. Mrs Bradley is a psychologist, has been married & widowed twice, & is the most eccentric & intelligent person in the book. One aspect of the writing annoyed me, the constant references to Mrs Bradley’s strange appearance. She’s constantly compared to a serpent or a crocodile, she cackles & shrieks continually & clutches at people with a skinny yellow claw etc etc. This is an early book in the series which began in 1929, so I hope Mitchell toned down these constant references in later books. Mrs Bradley is brilliant at deducing just what’s going on, often using her psychological training to determine motive or the probability of a suspect’s guilt. I found the device of Noel, the naive curate, as narrator a bit confusing too as he threw up his absurd theories for Mrs Bradley to demolish with a cackle or a shriek. He also did a lot of confused running around, interspersed with making love to the Vicar’s niece, Daphne. I have two more books in the series to read, Tom Brown’s Body & When Last I Died. They were written later in the series & I’ll be interested to see how the books progress. If you’ve read all of Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Allingham & Tey & are looking for more from the Golden Age, Mitchell may be the answer.