Gladys Mitchell, although she has somewhat fallen by the wayside in recent decades, was one of the ‘Big Three’ female crime writers of the ‘golden age’, alongside Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. She was even the recipient of the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger in 1976. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, ‘the most gloriously unorthodox female detective’ in the golden age of crime fiction is introduced in the first of Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley mysteries, Speedy Death, which was first published in 1929. Sixty six novels in total were penned in which she appears as protagonist. Vintage have republished four of her Mrs Bradley novels – the others are The Longer Bodies, Devil at Saxon Wall and Here Comes a Chopper – and have sixteen of her other titles available via their print-on-demand service.
Speedy Death opens with a young woman, Dorothy Clark, being chastised by her brother because she has appeared at the country house, to which many have been invited, on a far later train than she originally specified: ‘Our brother in the front row has been trying to get through to Paddington to find out whether you’d been rendered dead in the buffet through eating one of their ham sandwiches’, he tells her. The host of the dinner is one Alastair Bing, whose son, Garde, is Dorothy’s fiance. Mrs Bradley, whom Mitchell describes as being ‘dry without being shrivelled, and birdlike without being pretty’, is also a guest at this party.
The main thread of the story comes to the forefront of the novel when, during a dinner at Chaynings, the ‘charming country manor’, one of the guests – much-revered explorer Everard Mountjoy, who is engaged to Garde’s sister Eleanor – fails to turn up. Whilst searching around the manor for him, the other guests discover the body of an unknown woman in a bathtub. It is believed, upon further investigation, that Mountjoy was actually a woman who was masquerading as a man. The two men who discover this fact keep it from the rest of the party, and merely tell them that ‘Mountjoy was dead before any of us came down to dinner this evening’. Almost everyone present at Chaynings takes it upon themselves to try and solve what is believed to be the murder – rather than the accidental death – of the woman in the bath; a technique which holds intrigue.
The case is an interesting one, and holds surprises from beginning to end. Mitchell’s writing is consistently good, and particularly shines when one regards the conversational patterns which she has crafted throughout. Her writing is shrewd, intelligent, interesting, and really rather funny. Speedy Death is so well paced, and is not at all a predictable murder mystery. Mitchell has such skill as a novelist, and I for one am so glad that Vintage are reprinting some of her work. Fans of Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey are sure to love her.
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