Sunday, January 6, 2019

"A Very British Murder" and Gladys Mitchell

Last night I watched all three episodes of Lucy Worsley's "A Very British Murder" - a decision I started to regret all alone in a quiet dark house, with three cats staring off in the direction of the hallway.

The first episode looked at how, beginning in the Regency period, the British public became fascinated with accounts of murder, starting with the "Ratcliffe Highway Murders" in 1811. I was familiar with that case from P.D. James's The Maul and the Pear Tree, written with T.A. Critchley. Dr. Worsley argues that the proliferation of inexpensive publications including newspapers, combined with rising literacy rates, created an audience for stories particularly of murder. She talks about the rise of "murder tourism" and the collection of souvenirs. I was tickled to see a china keepsake replica of one murder site, the "Red Barn" case in 1827. A similar china memento plays an important part in Margery Allingham's The China Governess.

The second episode focused on Victorian crimes and the rise of both fictional and real-life detectives. I am most familiar with the Constance Kent case, through reading The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. Dr. Worsley interviewed Kate Summerscale about the case, and also included a picture of Mr. Whicher. I thought she focused a bit too much on Charles Dickens and his interest in detective work, even if it meant interviewing Simon Callow.

In the third episode, Dr. Worsley turned to fictional detectives and the crimes they investigate, particularly in the "Golden Age" of crime between the wars. I expected that Agatha Christie would have a prominent place, but I was pleasantly surprised to find Dr. Worsley prefers Dorothy L. Sayers' books and thinks Harriet Vane an amazing character (as she is). I particularly enjoyed the segment where she met Simon Brett to discuss the Detection Club that Sayers and Christie founded with other authors. It even included "Eric," the skull on which new members have taken their oaths back to Sayers' day. But the episode ended with Graham Greene, ignoring all the other wonderful authors of the Golden Age.

The British Library reprints and Martin Edwards' books have introduced me to so many of those authors. After I finished watching, I went browsing through the TBR shelves to find one of them. I settled on When Last I Died, by Gladys Mitchell. I came across this on the library sale shelves a couple of months ago, in a Hogarth Press edition. Mitchell, a member of the Detection Club, taught English and history while also producing over 70 crime novels. The central character in most of them is Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, a psychologist. In When Last I Died, from 1941, she has been called in as a consultant as a boys' reform school. Two of the boys have run away.
    Her own methods with the boys were characteristic. She thought they needed stimulating, and applied psychological treatment, to their astonishment and her own amusement. She discovered very soon that they were afraid of her. One even went so far as to ask whether she was there to pick out the "mentals."
    "We are all 'mentals,' my poor child," she remarked.
    Nevertheless, at the end of two days she could tell the Warden where to lay hands upon his missing boys, for it was common knowledge where and how they had gone, and this common knowledge she soon shared.
The Warden, while grateful, informs her that two other boys had previously disappeared and never been found. I expected Mrs. Bradley to start looking into that. Instead, she asks the Warden if she can rent a house and have boys to stay with her, as a break from the school (and for the staff). He refuses. She takes a house by the sea anyway, and invites her seven-year-old grandson Derek to stay with her. Mrs. Bradley knows that there have been some recent deaths in the house, but she is unprepared for Derek's question one night: "Gran, what lady was murdered in this house?" Derek also tells her that the house is haunted by the victim's ghost. He has been talking to the postmistress, Peggy Peeples. Mrs. Bradley asks her about it the next day. Peggy's response is a perfect tangle:
"It was never brought in as murder, that wasn't. Oh, no! It's only people's wickedness to talk the way they do, but of course she did come in for the money, Miss Bella did, and then she was tried for murdering her cousin, and that set people off again. But the poor thing committed suicide in the end - drowned herself, so I heard - and some thought it was remorse that made her do it. But all that talk about her aunt, there was nothing so far as we knew, though they do say no smoke without fire."
Now we'll see if Mrs. Bradley is drawn into investigating the murder of Miss Bella's Aunt Flora, or the earlier disappearance of the two boys - or maybe both. I am quite taken with her already, both as a psychologist and a grandmother. I think Gladys Mitchell could be very bad for my TBR resolution, even if all 70 of her books are no longer in print.

(I've already started my 2019 TBR list. Yesterday I found a pristine Penguin edition of Anna Katherine Green's The Leavenworth Case on the library sale shelves. This 1878 novel is considered "the mother of the detective novel," as the back cover puts it. I have an ebook version but was happy to find such a good copy for only $1.)


  1. These three episodes sound fascinating. And I love when I find a bargain like The Leavenworth Case on a library sale shelf. Especially when it's in pristine condition! :D

    1. The library sale shelves have been very bad for my TBR stacks! But I also donate to the shelves - I gave them five that day. It's easier to let books go, and it's always fun to spot them on the shelves, waiting for new homes :)

    2. And so much better than tossing them in the recycling bin!

  2. Gladys Mitchell was one of the authors published in Dell's Scene of the Crime/Murder Ink mystery imprints back in the early 80's. I remember reading her, along with Martha Grimes - the first Richard Jury books. The two imprints introduced me to lots of new-to-me American and British writers.

    1. My parents belonged to a mystery-of-the-month book club back in those days, and I know there were some Golden Age authors included (Christie and Tey at least). I don't remember Gladys Mitchell - but I was busy reading the Dell Shannon books (over and over).


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!