Many authors have their motif. Sometimes it will be a topic; other times it will be a phrase; in other instances, it will be an object. For Gladys Mitchell, it is her bathtub. And surely the bathtub has never been filled with such deadly waters as in the early crime investigations involving Gladys Mitchell’s series sleuth, Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley? The mere tinkle of running waters is a sure sign of violent death to follow.
Speedy Death, published in 1929 by Gollancz, and Gladys Mitchell’s first book, was to establish a murder scenario that would occur intermittently throughout her prolific writing career. In Speedy Death, it is the butler who realises that there is something untoward when he announces: “Mr Mountjoy went to take his bath upwards of an hour ago, and has not reappeared.” And it is the same irritatingly perspicacious individual, who later returns to the same theme: “What about Miss Eleanor? She hasn’t appeared yet, and––oh, sir, I do hope there’s nothing wrong.”
There are shades of Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat in Irving Politzer’s excellent stylised cover design for the US first edition of Speedy Death, published by Mason Publishing Co. in 1932, and which depicts this pivotal moment from the book.
A young child is found dead in a bath at St Peter’s Convent and Mrs Bradley finds herself once again embroiled in a mystery. Could Ursula Doyle have been overcome by the fumes from the geyser in the bathroom and accidentally drowned, or was there a more sinister agent at work? In St Peter’s Finger (Michael Joseph, 1938), Mrs Bradley identifies fact from fiction, suicide from murder. The bathroom in the convent is minutely described and conjures up a depressing image of a lonely place to die: “The little room was as bare and as clean as a cell. It was tiled to a height of four feet, and above the tiling the walls were covered with washable distemper.”
By the time When Last I Died was published in 1941, the idea of a watery grave is so fixed in the reader’s mind that every conceivable water receptacle takes on malignant connotations. Surely that large rain-water butt outside the back door of Bella Foxley’s cottage cannot be as innocent as it seems? Particularly after the resident village idiot’s cryptic assertion: “Pullen ar aid onder wartur.” And then there is the well at the old, haunted house––it is not only frogs, which lurk in those damp and depressing passages.
The most bizarre and sinister drownings though occur in Death at the Opera (Grayson, 1934); bizarre in the case of Miss Calma Ferris, who mysteriously contrives to drown in a small hand basin; sinister in the form of George Cutler, the scheming wife murderer. The healthy benefits of Cutler’s sea water baths are outweighed by his murderous intent. Cutler is a wonderful depiction of pure cold-bloodedness; the smiling chameleon who confidently believes himself beyond the reaches of the law; the single-minded killer, who methodically carries sea water up to his bungalow, to be heated for his next victim’s ablutions.
In Death at the Opera, Gladys Mitchell clearly used as a source for her inspiration the notorious ‘Brides in the Bath’ case, in which George Joseph Smith, a serial bigamist and murderer, was convicted and hanged for the murder of three women in 1915.
Cutler, in common with most of Gladys Mitchell’s bath-time assailants, uses the method of grabbing the unsuspecting bather’s feet, holding them aloft and so forcing the victim’s head under the water. But does this method really work? No experiments please. I am prepared to take Gladys Mitchell’s word for it.
© Fergus Longfellow
Fergus Longfellow thinks he hears someone call “Bath time!”
If you enjoy crime fiction, check out Gently Observed: An Uncritical Reading of the George Gently Crime Novels by Fergus Longfellow on Amazon.