ADDERS ON THE HEATH (1963)
1963 Michael Joseph, 1963 London House & Maxwell (U.S.). Reprinted 1988 Severn House.
Cover scan provided by Ash Rare Books
"You don't think there's anything suspicious in the circumstance that the owner of the house happened to be away on the very day you discovered a dead man in your tent?" Denis suggested.
"Oh, I hardly imagine so. Just a coincidence, I would say. And I certainly don't attach any importance to the fact that the maid wouldn't let me use the telephone. For all she knew, it might have been an impudent attempt on my part to get into the house with burglarious intentions. Besides, women-servants always think somebody is determined to murder them in their beds, although why in their beds I can't think. One would suppose the last thing to do on their part would be to stay in bed if a homicidal maniac was loose about the place. Personally, I should want to be up and about, preferably with my shoes on."
"Yes, it's odd how helpless one feels with bare feet if there's any rough stuff going--Judo excepted, of course."
Dame Beatrice receives a letter from her grandnephew, Denis Bradley, and relates its contents thusly to Laura over breakfast:
"Denis has joined a friend named Tom Richardson for a fortnight's holiday. He was late getting to the hotel and the friend slept in a small tent until Denis arrived. A dead man was found in the tent one night. Richardson recognised him, but did not tell the police so. However, by the time the police arrived at the tent, the body had been exchanged for another which Richardson did not recognise. Now he and Denis have discovered the first body. They want us to go along and look into the matter."
Look into the matter they do, and it's soon discovered that Tom Richardson, a track runner, not only knew one of the dead men but had quarreled with him on one blackmail-tinged occasion. How and why the rival athlete's body had gotten into Tom's tent, and why it was then exchanged for a second dead man, are indeed mysteries best left to the elderly sleuth. What she discovers involves an improbable mix of athletics clubs, absentee landowners, New Forest ponies, and some vague form of national/international intrigue, the undertaking of which perhaps only Dame Beatrice truly understands.
It is telling that the most enjoyable sequences in the outdoor tale Adders on the Heath are the exchanges between Laura and Hamish, her 10-year old son, and between the boy and his godmother, Dame Beatrice. Hamish, who is knowledgeable to the point of distraction, appears at the beginning and end of the story, and he is a delight. It is in between these appearances, wherein Dame B. interviews all and sundry in search of the truth, that the tale lacks momentum. The boy's presence provides some precocious energy, but when the mystery takes over, it's business as usual.
And rather uninspired, vague, and disappointing business at that. The body-swapping and tent-hopping maneuvers are never satisfactorily explained, and the operation that Dame Beatrice uncovers remains so abstruse to the reader as to be rendered pointless. In addition, there are jarring little entr'acte chapters where we eavesdrop on the slang-filled conversations of a couple of peripheral athlete characters. Even worse, these people are even given wrap-up exposition to relate in the final pages, a gambit that's singularly unconvincing. The villain of the piece stays well in the background, and by the story's end, we know little more about this character than name and suspected involvement in the affair. Ah, for the golden days of Mitchell plotting (see 1929's The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop or 1932's The Saltmarsh Murders), when the murderer is a visible, viable character with which the reader is able to spend a little time before the judgment!
Though the plotting here is weak, the writing carries its usual share of steady-on wit. The prose is on occasion humorous and engaging, though you'll find these qualities put to better use when they are bolstering stronger stories. But even weak Mitchell is worthy of a read, and not entirely without merit. Recommended for Gladys Mitchell completists, enthusiasts, and those with less discriminating tastes.