Book Review by George S:
Speedy Death was Gladys Mitchell’s first detective novel. It introduces Mrs Bradley, her psychoanalyst detective, who would go on to solve another sixty-two mysteries. Philip Larkin was a big fan; he called her ‘the great Gladys’, and wrote that she ‘stood splendidly apart from her crime-club confrères in total originality’.
He especially liked the surreal situations that Mitchell’s plots create, and Speedy Death begins with a brilliant one. At a country-house party, the explorer Everard Mountjoy (who has recently become engaged to the daughter of the house) is late for dinner. He has shut himself in the bathroom. When eventually members of the party go to break down the door to see what has happened, they find that the bath contains the dead body of a naked woman. And the woman, people reluctantly agree, is Everard Mountjoy.
As a murder mystery the book is not especially puzzling. An astute reader will guess the identity of the killer long before it dawns on the guests – though Mrs Bradley hints that she knew even before we did. The second half of the book is about the dilemma of what you should do if you know that a person in your household is a homicidal maniac.
Mrs Bradley is marvellous:
Mrs. Bradley was dry without being shrivelled, and bird-like without being pretty. She reminded Alastair Bing, who was afraid of her, of the reconstruction of a pterodactyl he had once seen in a German museum. There was the same inhuman malignity in her expression as in that of the defunct bird, and, like it, she had a cynical smirk about her mouth even when her face was in repose. She possessed nasty, dry, claw-like hands, and her arms, yellow and curiously repulsive, suggested the plucked wings of a fowl…(8)
Her smile is compared to that of an alligator, and Gladys Mitchell obviously has a lot of fun making her as repellent as possible. At night, ‘Mrs Bradley was even less attractive in bed than she was out of it.’ She says unorthodox things:
I will confess at once that when I head that Mountjoy was dead, my first feeling was one of vague irritation. Deaths always signify an outbreak of sickly piety, of hushed voices, of funeral furnishings; they augur a suspension of gaieties, of light conversation, of entertaining quarrels, of intellectual argument. (169)
Gladys Mitchell is not the writer to let death come in the way of a lively time. There are no ‘sickly pieties’ in this book. Mrs Bradley is a role model for taking death and madness in your stride. (Spoiler alert: I’m now going to reveal one of the book’s surprises.) When Mountjoy’s murderer also dies in suspicious circumstances, Mrs Bradley is arrested and tried for the murder. She is not particularly upset by this:
Mrs Bradley was enjoying herself. She had enjoyed being arrested. It was a new experience, and she had made special note of her psychological reactions to it, and had planned to incorporate them in her next book. (279)
The book’s detective interest is not large, but it keeps the reader intrigued by constantly throwing up surprises. It will not satisfy readers who like everything cut and dried. At the beginning of the book we puzzle – Who is the woman who has dressed herself as Everard Mountjoy? Why is she doing this? What were the circumstances in which she became engaged to another woman? These questions are left unanswered as the book moves swiftly to other issues.
For 1929, the book would have had a whiff of sexual unorthodoxy. Three years before, Radclyffe Hall’s ‘The Well of Loneliness’ had been prosecuted for its depiction of female ‘inversion’. Gladys Mitchell herself never married, had close relationships with women, and wrote Sapphic poetry. The woman passing as a man, and the tantalising fact, never really explored, that she had been engaged to the daughter of the house, hint at the love that dare not speak its name very loud, and perhaps a hint was all that like-minded readers in the late twenties needed in order to feel that this was a book for them.
This book is something of a lark, refreshingly unserious about all sorts of things, and that is the spirit in which it needs to be read. It is unserious about the detective story form as well. Not only are there the loose ends mentioned above, but the plodding local policeman is actually called Inspector Boring. Sometimes when authors are enjoying themselves it means that their readers don’t – but in this case this reader had a great time. I shall read more of Mrs Bradley.