I have a rather strange relationship with Gladys Mitchell. She was the first crime writer whose books I started to collect, and yet many of her novels leave me feeling either perplexed or frustrated, or both. At her best––When Last I Died––she is clever and witty and imaginative; at her worst––Hangman’s Curfew––she is impenetrable. And yet she is an author I repeatedly return to; can always find new intrigues, allusions and amusements in her writing, which I have previously overlooked; will happily reread even her most infuriating books.
Speedy Death was Gladys Mitchell’s first novel to feature her series sleuth Mrs Bradley. It was also one of the first of her stories that I read. The recent discovery of an old, 1932 Mason Publishing Co. edition of the book, with a striking dust wrapper design by Irving Politzer provided a good excuse to read the novel again, even though I believed that I could remember most of the plot fairly well; certainly, could recall the actual crime––crimes; a number of the key incidents; and the culprit––culprits.
In the blurb about the book on the inside front flap of the dust wrapper, the publisher describes Gladys Mitchell as “very young, and her writing, in its spontaneous freshness, shows it.” It is amusing for me to think of the author as such because, only discovering her books towards the end of her long writing career––66 Mrs Bradley novels alone––I have always thought of her as a rather elderly woman, much like the protagonist she describes. Certainly, the author photo, which would habitually stare out from the back cover of many of her later works always appeared rather forbidding and school-marmish, which is why I find it hard to think of her at the time of writing Speedy Death as a youthful 28-year old, only just embarking out on her career.
However, there is a distinct youthfulness about the writing style of Speedy Death, and this feeling also seems to infuse the character of Mrs Bradley in the story even––or, more accurately, particularly––when she finds herself in a situation in extremis towards the climax of the novel. Throughout the entire series of novels, Mrs Bradley remains relatively timeless, despite the evolving histories of the characters around her; invariably described as elderly and reptilian and capable of an eldritch cackle, it is interesting to find an actual age attributed to her in Speedy Death; she turns out to be a relatively modest 57, as revealed when she describes her son, Ferdinand: “He is thirty-nine, and was born on my eighteenth birthday.” (p. 246). Perhaps this seemed ancient to the young Gladys?
It may also reflect a youthful and developing writing style that everything seems to happen twice over in Speedy Death: two similar deaths in the same unusual circumstances; two horrific night-time assaults; and two rounds of investigations and interrogations of the suspects, the first by Mr Carstairs, the second by Inspector Boring. This may be due to a lack of confidence in the first-time author in the impact of her ideas, or the complete opposite, and an assumption that like New York, New York, you can’t have too much of a good thing.
Not necessarily my favourite of her novels––although also a very long way from being my least––for me, Speedy Death is most memorable for its series of set-piece tableaux, the most striking of which is when Carstairs and Bertie Philipson crouch behind the bedstead in Pamela Storbin’s room as the murderer appears framed in the candlelight in the doorway, and: “…advanced towards the empty bed with the carving-knife raised high in the air.” (p. 212).
It is an image to chill the blood, both young and old.
© Fergus Longfellow
Fergus Longfellow ponders which Gladys Mitchell novel to reread next.