A JAVELIN FOR JONAH (1974)
1974 Michael Joseph.
"Why does Gassie want that terrifying old lady to vet the students?"
"That terrifying old lady is my godmother, so watch what you have to say about her. I think he meant exactly what he said. It will give the students something else to think and gossip about, besides Jones's death."
"Funny that she and your mother should have picked this day of all days to visit you here."
"Coincidences do occur," said Hamish, who had decided not to be drawn, even by his friend, into admitting that Dame Beatrice was at the College because he had asked her to investigate what appeared to be a case of murder.
Hamish Gavin has accepted a teaching position at a unique institution, Joynings, where almost all of the students--and most of the faculty--have dark deeds and secrets in their past that led them there. Equal parts safe house, college, and minimum confinement prison, Joynings warden Gascoigne "Gassie" Medlar places the emphasis on school sports programs, with academic classes arriving a distant second. Hamish soon meets the other teacher/coaches, including a disagreeable man named Jones, who is unpopular with students and staff, and for several good reasons. David Jones is a careless womanizer, targeting a number of female students and work staff; his actions and oversights have caused sports injuries to some promising athletes, including a stunt that sent a long distance jumper to the hospital; he's unreliable and drinks heavily; and complaints to Medlar about him don't produce a result, as Jones is the warden's brother-in-law.
When Jones disappears from campus, no one is overly concerned, though Hamish finds the behavior of some of the students odd. Days later, Jones's body is discovered buried in the long jump pit, and Hamish contacts his mother and her employer, Dame Beatrice, who takes up the case. Dame B.'s investigations uncover several motives of people who would prefer to see the unlikeable Jonah out of the picture, including Medlar, who may have been his blackmail victim. A trophy javelin is found in a changing room, covered in red paint, but the real murder weapon is soon found among the practice javelins: one of them was fitted with a lethal steel dagger tip. As Dame Beatrice gathers more clues, a student's body is found in the woods, bludgeoned by a metal shot. An off-campus meeting of suspects at the village police station gives Dame Beatrice the opportunity to unmask the school's sports-minded killer.
An engaging plot, some sympathetic characters (I took an affinity to the compassionate and sensible coach Mr. Henry), a couple colorful murders (death by sporting good) and a villainous victim contribute to an enjoyable middle-road read. The prose and dialogue are economic, smart and assured. A Javelin for Jonah is another Mrs. Bradley story that uses a school setting, though the delinquent youth college of Joynings is a rewarding variation on the theme. Gladys Mitchell very quickly and effectively creates her campus and cast of characters, and while the book isn't particularly memorable, it offers to the indiscriminate mystery reader the smoothest and most enjoyable type of light reading.
(Minor SPOILER herein.) My complaint with this story takes root in the murderer's identity. Specifically, my problem is this: the killer is revealed to be a character who never makes a first-hand appearance, but instead is only referenced (and minorly, at that) by other, more present characters. There are a couple problems inherent in this gambit, the most obvious being that the reader feels tricked by having this never-before-seen character jump up from the narrative fringe to say, "I did it!" A lack of satisfaction settles in, and because you've spent no time with this person, his/her shout of guilt, to which the reader initially replies, "And who are you?" is met with the follow-up sentiment, "Well, so what?" I guess it does qualify as a least-likely-suspect feint, but only because the suspect wasn't truly considered as one in the first place. I can safely say that the solution would have been more satisfying to me had the murderer been identified as anyone else who was officially considered a suspect, rather than the attributed murderer. I'd even sacrifice my beloved Mr. Henry....
Good book, frustrating ending.