Gladys Mitchell was born in 1901 and, between 1929 and her death in 1984, produced 66 novels featuring her eccentric sleuth Mrs Bradley. That’s twice as many as Christie wrote featuring Poirot and five times as many as Miss Marple. As such, she seemed an ideal candidate for G in the Alphabet of Crime Fiction.
The Saltmarsh Murders is the fourth Mrs Bradley story, dating from 1932. It is narrated by the local curate and tells of a variety of odd goings-on, most notably the murder of a young girl, days after giving birth to a child of unknown parentage and then the substitution of her corpse in her coffin by a second body. Mrs Bradley is on hand to stick her nose in and bring matters to their necessary conclusion.
Noel, the curate, is an odd narrator, and I kept finding myself flicking back a paragraph to see what I missed, as he changes scenes mid-paragraph and occasionally mid-sentence. I found it confusing that suddenly a character that wasn’t there a moment ago is in conversation with him while everyone else has vanished. I’m sure this wouldn’t bother readers with a longer attention span than me, but with my goldfish mentality, it did cause a problem. I’m going to be generous and put this down to good characterisation by Mitchell. Noel’s own conclusions seem to leap from suspect to suspect and this could reflect in his narrative style. Certainly it does not repeat in other Mrs Bradley books that I have read, although this is the earliest by far.
If you’ve seen the BBC’s short-lived Mrs Bradley Mysteries starring Diana Rigg, you’d be surprised at her character here. Her description as a shrivelled harpy doesn’t exactly match up and her character is much more eccentric, although by the end of the book, she seems to have settled down. Her various insights throughout the book are odd and sometimes worrying – notably that one character enjoys the domestic abuse she receives – namely that a sadist and a masochist makes a happy marriage.
The central mystery plot takes a while to settle down, but has a reasonably logical conclusion. I won’t say it’s fairly clued, tending more towards an explanation that makes sense of the facts, rather than being directly clued, but the murderer is quite guessable, although not by me. This might be due to the fact that by the time I got to the end of the book, I simply didn’t care much.
You see, this book simply didn’t connect with me. That happens sometimes. I was genuinely concerned that I wouldn’t get it finished for the deadline for the G review due to the fact that I’d read a chapter or two and then something else would make me put it down again – usually something I’d read. Sometimes it would be the eccentric narration confusing me again, sometimes it would be that I was simply too tired to concentrate – it’s been a long week – or sometimes it would simply be some of the bizarre antics in the book.
At one point, one character locks another in a crypt for a bet. One woman consistently goes around calling people by animal names. Another climbs on the roof and throws tiles at people. The local vicar is attacked and chained up by the neck until he is rescued. The introduction refers to Mitchell taking the opportunity to pastiche the detective genre, but I just found the “humour” fell completely flat.
I’d also be at fault if I didn’t mention the casual racism as well. I know that it is a book from a different time, but the black servant (virtually slave) of one character is very badly handled. He is repeatedly referred to as “dirty” or words that I’m not willing to print, and when he gets the chance to speak (which only happens in one chapter) it’s like an Uncle Remus stereotype. The absolute nadir is when someone is attacked in the dark and the mystery attacker must have sustained several bruises to the face. The attacker’s identity is a mystery for a while because the servant’s face won’t show bruises, because it is already that colour… I hope you see my point.
The book redeems itself partly by the end, although some of the developments around the denouement are somewhat bizarre, but the addition of Mrs Bradley’s Diary as an appendix, showing how her thoughts developed throughout the case is a very nice touch.
There’s enough here to bring me back to Ms Mitchell, but I think a later book is called for to see if her style has settled down somewhat.