TWELVE HORSES AND THE HANGMAN'S NOOSE (1956)
1956 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1958 British Book Centre (U.S.); 1961 Penguin Paperback; 1977 Magna Print; 1983 Severn House.
"When is a murder not a murder?" demanded Laura. "I'll tell you. (a) When a man has been kicked on the head by a horse who didn't do it, and (b) when somebody fills a chronic drunk with something to stop him drinking--which it did, drastically, by finishing him off."
Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley has been asked to deliver the opening day speech for the Seahampton Grammar School. Before opening day, Laura Gavin, Dame B.'s secretary, learns of the suspicious death of a riding stable owner, and the duo investigate. John Mapsted's body was found early in the morning in one of the horse stables, his skull smashed. The horse in the stable made a commotion at six a.m., but the doctor concluded the time of death near midnight. Also, what would Mapsted be doing in the stables at that hour?
Laura can't believe the horse--a tempermental but nonviolent creature--could have killed Mapsted. The stablehand, Jenkinson, claims there was blood on the horse's hoof, but he says he immediately washed away the evidence. Further questioning proves complicated: Jenkinson turns up dead at the school's opening day ceremonies, sprawled funereally among a display of daffodils and grape-hyacinths in the gymnasium. A teacher's disappearance, a blood-stained mallet from the art department, a bit of airport smuggling and a run-in with a gipsy named Zozo keep Dame Beatrice and Laura busy.
An unremarkable but enjoyable mystery, this book is middle-of-the-road Mitchell, both chronologically and in terms of quality. Twelve Horses is enlivened by the author's sense of humor and penchant for bizarre plot elements. This is the first book where Mrs. Bradley receives the title of "Dame Beatrice." There's no direct reference to the bestowment of title, which must have happened between books.
Twelve Horses uses series character Laura Gavin a little too often for my liking; Dame B. becomes overshadowed by her busy secretary, who graduates in this story from Dr. Watson commentary to Archie Goodwin action figure. Laura's forever interrogating, trailing and badgering suspects, while Mrs. Croc waits off-stage, not even so much as poking a bony yellow finger into anyone's ribs. Instead of Dame B. conversing with loyal chauffeur George on a ride to the crime scene, we have Laura zipping around hither and yon on a motor scooter. Miss Mitchell obviously has an affinity for Laura, who readers first meet in Laurels Are Poison (1942). Laura's candid and colorful dialogue often provides a neat counterpoint to her employer's forthright exchanges. (Laura, on a pair of child stable riders: "They are, without exception, the cagiest collection of brats I've ever encountered. The Prince of Liars could learn a lot from young Ursula, and as for the boy, Machiavelli was a child compared with him.") Laura works best as a feisty sidekick; future Mitchell novels will find Dame Beatrice front and center at the murder scene, where she belongs.