The Twenty-Third Man by Gladys Mitchell

Twenty Third ManWelcome to the island of Hombres Meurtos, located… um, not sure really. I guess it’s near the Canary Islands, but did they have bandits (as in traditional Mexican-style banditos) in 1957? Regardless, it’s six days voyage out of Liverpool. You work it out.

Where was I? Oh, yes, Mrs Bradley has decided to make it a stop on her cruise, mostly due to most of her fellow passengers not doing so. But needless to say, it’s not a haven of peace and quiet. For up in the hills lies a cave in which sits the mummified bodies of twenty-three dead kings.

Seriously, where is this island supposed to be? Any ideas?

Sorry, back to the plot. When Mrs Bradley is informed by a precocious child that there were in fact twenty four bodies, she investigates and finds only twenty three as expected. But on closer examination, one of the bodies is noticeably taller than the others. And much more recently dead, of course…

One presumes the island was named after the mummies were discovered. It’s a hell of a coincidence otherwise…

Back to Gladys Mitchell, that most erratic of mystery writers. Sometimes you get a classic. Sometimes you get something unreadable. Who knows what you’ll get when you pick one at random to join in Past Offences’ Crimes Of The Century #1957book meme? The last time I used Gladys for this – Hangman’s Curfew – it was most definitely in the unreadable category but given my suggestion at last year’s Bodies From The Library conference that Gladys should usurp Ngaio Marsh from the fourth Crime Queen throne, I figure that every now and then I need to further my knowledge of her. If there’s going to be a coup, I’d rather it was based on reading more than a handful of her books.

But reading her books can be a frustrating experience. Her characters seem to belong to a different reality. While some Golden Age writers are criticised for bland characters, Mitchell seems to go to the opposite extreme. Witness here the child Clement, whose parents have raised him as an experiment to have no inhibitions. Seriously. Notwithstanding this vague explanation as to some behaviour that prolongs the investigation, surely nobody actually did this? It just comes from the depth of Mitchell’s imagination and produces a character that you just want to go away. No wonder Mrs Bradley almost lets him… well, that’s a bit of a spoiler. And the less said about the utterly insane Peterhouse the better.

That’s not to say that this isn’t an enjoyable book – it just takes a little patience. There’s a convoluted plot – possibly too convoluted – and the red herrings mostly consist of nutters doing nutty things just for the sake of it (including one just lying about stuff for the sake of it), but nonetheless, I enjoyed this one a lot more than some of the others that I’ve read. It’s no classic, but it’s not boring and, most importantly, at the end of the book, I understood what had happened (unlike Hangman’s Curfew) and it’s made me more inclined to revisit Mitchell in the near-ish future. Well Worth A Look if you’re feeling brave…

But it really should be called The Twenty Fourth Man. Just saying…

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14 comments

  1. I read this one a while and I do remember it being a middling sort of book, albeit a very nutty one. Mitchell is an author I have neglected of late, though maybe she is worth another visit.

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  2. I have a feeling that this might be the book that broke Mitchell for me, the point when I promsied myself that with so much undiscovered out there I would never again darken a day by wasting even a moment on any more of her nonsense. Was a few years ago, though, so it could just have easily been something else; plenty to choose from in that regard…

    Anyway, glad you borderline enjoyed this at least. Would be a shame if we both lost out!

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  3. I am currently reading this following “Laurels are Poison.” I usually take a longer break between Mitchell but I had seen you were going to review this one. I like it better than Laurels but I couldn’t wait for that one to end what with all the sports and “forms” and everyone telling everything. So Mrs. Croc doesn’t **** Clement?

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  4. Congratulations on a great website with a lot of fascinating information about authors and titles. Gladys Mitchell’s reputation as a love-her-or-hate-her author is certainly true, and as you mention in your reviews, the quality (and tone) of her work varies from title to title and decade to decade. I maintain the GM tribute site The Stone House, and back in the late 1990s, when I first began collecting her books — “The Rising of the Moon” was the one that started my addiction — I was frustrated at the lack of additional information regarding plot and quality. I eventually was able to provide summaries and reviews of the 66 Mrs. Bradley books as well as the Malcolm Torrie and Stephen Hockaby titles and most of her children’s books.

    You mention that you could have easily disliked “The Twenty-Third Man” had you read it a little later or in a different mood, and that’s another curious thing about Mitchell’s writing. One has to be in the mood. I initially gave this book the highest rating on my site, but revisiting it a year ago, I was much less enamored. Other titles of hers I can return to time and again, always with satisfying results. Examples include “When Last I Died” (which I feel is very much an homage to Wilkie Collins’ epistolary narrative storytelling and preoccupation with spirits), “The Rising of the Moon”, “Nest of Vipers”, and “The Devil’s Elbow”, to name a few.

    I’ll add that a quite reasonable obstacle for many classic detection readers of Gladys Mitchell’s work ties to the fact that she just wasn’t interested in presenting traditionally-clued fair-play puzzles; at least it wasn’t her primary goal, as it was for Agatha Christie. Because I like GM’s quirky characterization and her imaginative plotting and her strongly evocative prose (in the pre-1950s books primarily, before her Ivy Compton-Burnett period), it’s fine with me that only a handful of her stories use a fair-play puzzle structure. For many other readers, this proves infuriating, and I certainly understand that.

    It is why, whenever I recommend the author or loan a new reader a Mrs. Bradley book, I do so with the qualification that she’s an acquired taste!

    Thanks again for such a great site for mystery fans — Jason

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    • You’re welcome, Jason. I did try and suggest at the Bodies from the Library conference that Mitchell deserved to be a Queen of Crime more than Ngaio Marsh, but having read a bit more of her, I think the inconsistency really counts against her. Still don’t think Marsh should be mentioned in the same breath as Christie though…

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  5. That’s interesting. I read maybe a half-dozen Ngaio Marsh books decades ago, and can’t recall a single plotline, nor can I say that any of the clues or murder methods stand out. I remember thinking that she wasn’t a bad writer, but the stories never hooked me the way the best of Christie, Nicholas Blake, or John Dickson Carr had. The irony is, had Gladys Mitchell delivered only a dozen sterling books in the Mrs. Bradley series instead of her voluminous, inconsistent output, she might very well be better remembered and regarded than she currently is.

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