When Last I Died by Gladys Mitchell

When Last I DiedStill going with “Golden Age Month” on the blog, and it’s time for Gladys Mitchell, writer of 66 mysteries featuring Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley. You may be aware of the short-lived TV series featuring Diana Rigg, which played fast and loose with the stories and, most importantly, the character and appearance of Mrs Bradley herself.

Bella Foxley killed her Aunt Flora by poisoning her grated carrot. She then threw her cousin Tom out of the window of a haunted house. She was acquitted in court but no-one seemed to doubt her guilt. When she retired to the country with her sister and drowned herself, no-one was really surprised.

Years later, Mrs Bradley stumbles upon Bella’s diary which causes her some concerns. Was everything really as it seemed? The inconsistencies in the diary seem to indicate that events were not as clear-cut as it seems so she dives headlong into a mystery involving poltergeists, escaped young offenders, séances, and someone is willing to let the past stay dead…

Sixty six books in a highly regarded series – it seems odd that Mrs Bradley has only featured once before on the blog – The Saltmarsh Murders – nearly two years ago, but as I had a number of issues with that one, it’s maybe unsurprising that I’ve not returned. Certainly I tried a couple of time to get through Come Away, Death, but Gladys Mitchell has an extremely variable writing style. Sometimes it’s very readable, sometimes it’s almost impenetrable.

This one, I’m glad to say, falls into the “very readable” category, especially after a few mis-fires recently on the reading list. In fact, it’s a real page-turner, an impressive feat given that the “investigating a past crime” sub-genre can be quite dull when not done well.

Mrs Bradley is less abrasive in this book than in others – rather essential give that she’s front and centre on almost every page. The plot has some good twists and Mitchell plays a clever game with parts of it. Having a small number of suspects and, even then, making me look the wrong way was quite an achievement. Admittedly, if, in hindsight, you think about why some of the events occurred – why was the diary written, for example – you realise that some things occurred to service the plot rather than realism, but nonetheless, this was a very enjoyable read that will certainly have me coming for more. Recommended.

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18 comments

  1. I have never read a Gladys Mitchell book because I caught an episode of Mrs. Bradley on PBS and hated it! Diana Riggs did not play a character I could like at all. I think I will have to give her books a try now!

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    • Me too for the TV series. But I did watch it before reading any of the books. I’m sure I’ve read a couple more, but I’d be pushed to say which ones. I know I’ve got … Butcher’s Shop knocking around somewhere so maybe that’ll get a look in soon

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  2. The book Deanna mentions is probably “The Rising of the Moon,” where, if I recall correctly, one of the young boys is also the narrator. It’s quite good, though there’s less of Mrs. Bradley than usual.

    If I were recommending a “starter” Mrs. Bradley for someone who hasn’t read Mitchell before, I would probably suggest “A Hearse on May-Day” (which was recently republished by the Rue Morgue Press). It’s full of eccentrics, strange events, a murder (or more), a delightful protagonist in Fenella Legrange (who puts up with NO nonsense from anyone), and Mrs. Bradley’s peculiarities toned back somewhat. It’s really quite good.

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  3. I always recommend Merlin’s Furlong (also reprinted by Rue Morgue Press) as the most readable and enjoyable of the Mrs. Bradley books. I also liked Here Comes a Chopper (a reprint coming soon from Vintage in the UK) which I reviewed a few months ago on my blog. When Last I Died seems to be the overall favorite of nearly every “expert” on Mitchell I’ve come across. It always makes the Top Ten Mrs. Bradley Books. I liked it though I recall some of Mitchell’s trademark eccentricities in prose on display. In any case it’s worth enduring all that stylistic highbrow stuff for the exciting climax in the kitchen when “Mrs. Croc” does battle with the murderer. I like it when Mrs. Bradley gets tough!

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    • Not mine! I suppose the equivalent for Carr is something like He Who Whispers, The Crooked Hinge, The Three Coffins or The Burning Court – a book with a reputation, but not one of my favourites. The other Mitchells I’d particularly recommend are: The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop (works both as spoof and as fair play detective story); Death at the Opera (unusual motive, but excellent setting and characterisation, and Mrs Bradley solves the case from two angles – psychological and material); The Devil at Saxon Wall (superb – set in a village with pagan survivals; elaborate, ingenious plot); Come Away, Death; St Peter’s Finger (very orthodox, straightforward detective story, similar to a Sayers or P.D. James); Brazen Tongue (set in small town during WWII, beautifully clued); The Rising of the Moon (not really a detective story, but a great coming of age story – serial killer seen through the eyes of an adolescent boy); Death and the Maiden (plot of baroque complexity, delightfully written); Tom Brown’s Body (more for the school story than for the plot itself); Groaning Spinney; The Echoing Strangers; Merlin’s Furlong; and The 23rd Man. A mixture of ambitious, experimental works, and more solid, straightforward detective stories.

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      • Oh, and it’s When Last I Died I’m talking about here. It’s a minimalist work – it lacks Mitchell’s usual exuberance and sense of humour. For some reason, the grimmer, less fun stories have a higher reputation among fans. Caves of Androzani syndrome?

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