Guest writer Stuart Radmore explores one of the lesser-known female authors of the Golden Age, and he feels that the revival of interest in her books by modern readers is justified.
Gladys Mitchell (1901 – 1983), of Scottish descent, was born in Cowley, near Oxford. She spent much of her childhood in Brentford, Middlesex. After taking a degree at the University of London, she taught (English, History and Games) altogether for some thirty-seven years at a variety of schools in what is now West London.
Away from her teaching life Miss Mitchell created the first notable, and still the best known, example of a psychiatrist-detective in the formidable person of Mrs (late Dame) Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, consultant psychiatrist to the Home Office.
She is sometimes extremely orthodox in her methods. While some of her deductions allude to Freudian theory (one of the author’s many enthusiasms) she appears to obtain her results by intuition – or something more. Elements of the occult – witchcraft, the supernatural, folk superstitions or practices – sometimes play too large a part in many of the books, to the detriment of their quality as detective stories; though this at least makes it clear that Mrs Bradley is as much a witch as a psychiatrist.
In fact, Gladys Mitchell well understood that her books had about them the basic unreality of an all-ends-well comedy. “I regard my books as fairy tales” she said, “I never take the crime itself seriously”.
It’s been noted by others that Miss Mitchell was obviously a woman of some inquisitiveness, and that what she finds out, she shares. Throughout her many books while it’s inevitable that there is a wide variation in subject, this sometimes also results in a variation in quality.
Everyone has his favourites, but it’s generally thought that her best books were those written up to the early 1950s – ‘St Peter’s Finger’ (1938) The Saltmarsh Murders’ (1941) and ‘The Devil’s Elbow’ (1951) are particularly praised – with only a handful thereafter reaching this earlier high standard. Of these later novels ‘Dance to your Daddy’ (1969) should be singled out. It’s light on the supernatural, while maintaining an air of unreality throughout. The author herself has said:
“… apart from ‘Laurels are Poison’ (1942) I like most ‘The Rising of the Moon’ (1945) which recalls much of my Brentford childhood. (I am Simon in the story and my beloved brother Reginald is Keith) and the same two children appear as Margaret and Kenneth in the 50th book, ‘Late, Late in the Evening’, which is about the two of us in Cowley, before the motor works got there “.
Let the final words come from the poet Philip Larkin, who was a great admirer of the novels. In 1982 he wrote:
“Miss Mitchell has always stood splendidly apart from her crime club confreres in total originality – even when, as today, there are almost none left to stand apart from. The originality consists in blending eccentricity of subject matter with authoritative common sense of style”.
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