BRAZEN TONGUE (1940)
1940 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 2005 Minnow Press; 2014 Vintage Press.
Cover scan provided by Facsimile Dust Jackets.
The deaths had been, as it were, topical, and their aftermath had been too spectacular to be in keeping with such a town.
In the first two months of the war--as though reports of schools closed, children sent into the country, and descriptions (with photographs) of the new public air raid shelters were not enough to give the paper that extra fillip which the times appeared to require, there must be a Council member poisoned with arsenic. And then... there had followed the sensational discovery of his body propped up in a doorway near the local cinema; this in addition to the discovery of another body, that of an unknown woman, in the municipal A.R.P. cistern in an obscure cul-de-sac at the western end of the town. Then, 'overdoing it,' said Mrs. Bradley to herself, there was also this apparently motiveless murder of the red-haired telephonist at the Town Hall Report Centre.
There is a great deal of activity to be found in the usually quiet little village of Willington. It is "the early days of the war," and defensive measures are in full swing: blacked-out windows are not only de rigueur but essential, the town's Report Centre--manned by Air Raid Patrol wardens and volunteers--monitors the countryside for enemy action, and newly erected water cisterns stand by to combat fires. It is a village at the ready, but one that did not expect such an intimate local attack. A group of boys planning a night swim in one of the water tanks discovers the body of a woman within the murky depths. Then a courting couple's evening is cut short when the corpse of a town councillor falls from the shadows of a theater doorway. Moments later a girl working at the Report Centre steps out for air--or perhaps an assignation--never to return. She is found near a fountain, her head smashed by a stone.
Suffice to say, Inspector Stallard is quite keen on getting to the bottom of the murders. Sally Lestrange worked at the Centre the night Lillie Fletcher was killed outside, and this witness soon introduces the inspector to her aunt, Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley. He is grateful for the help, even when theories conflict: Stallard ascribes the murders to one culprit, while Mrs. Bradley prefers a less strict interpretation. The stories of each victim become complicated quite quickly. The possibility arises that the unidentified woman may have escaped from a local asylum, and that she might have drowned in the canal and was then placed in the water tank. Councillor Smith's final glass of stout at The Rat and Cow-catcher could have carried the arsenic, but if that was the case, was he the intended victim? And though Lillie Fletcher's boyfriend, a young man named Derek Coffin, falls into place as the prime suspect, there is no motive in sight.
Though the inspector is overwhelmed, Mrs. Bradley follows her instincts and interviews the villagers who are entangled in the case. A near fatal fall from a high diving board rattles a potential witness, while Mrs. B. dodges both a quick shove and a flying crystal ball. Together with Sally, Stallard, and an ambitious young reporter named Patricia Mort, the elderly detective arrives at a solution as precarious as it is clever.
Gladys Mitchell had a pretty low opinion of Brazen Tongue, calling it "a horrible book" in an interview with Barry Pike decades later. I'm quite curious to know what in particular earned her disfavour. I see only two possible negatives inherent in this extremely enjoyable book. One is a rather facile, but never mean-spirited, caricature of an immigrant Jewess who speaks in a sort of baby-talk European patois. The character of Mrs. Zacharias -- who proves both jovial and intelligent -- is not nearly as offputting as the half-dozen pages of dialect given to her words during her brief scene.
The more justifiable criticism might target this mystery story's meandering reveal of its solution. The last 40 pages are spent with the inspector and Mrs. Bradley trying on various theories like so many oversized hats. When they do light upon the murderer/victim combination that satisfies, the reader must work to dismiss the equally valid, but false, suspicions raised against others just pages before. To its credit, I am happy that Brazen Tongue manages to create such a large gallery of suspects, and manages to give so many of the players screen time, as it were. In some of her later plotlines, Miss Mitchell leaves the central villain too undefined and vague to create much impact; this is not the case here.
And what of this horrible book's pleasures? First and foremost would be the British-village-gearing-up-for-war backdrop, presented in fascinating detail as the town of Willington adapts to the still new and novel accoutrements of land defense. War spirit specifics are sharp and often very comic, from Mrs. Bradley knitting a khaki balaclava helmet to chauffeur George mischievously siphoning rationed gas to aid his employer. Unlike Sunset over Soho a few years later -- a dark, moody war story written when its characters and their author had experienced the ravages of the Blitz -- Brazen Tongue distances itself from a grimmer reality by keeping its deaths strictly in line with the mystery cosy tradition.
The number of relations represented in this book is also cause for celebration. Not only niece Sally but also her mother, Lady Selina Lestrange, make an effort, with Sally operating the radio at the Report Centre and Lady Selina investigating blackout infractions. (Says Sally: "She loves going round and knocking up all the people in the village and telling them to cover up lights. She's passed her anti-gas stuff, too, and I believe she sleeps in her tin hat.") Formidable defense attorney (and Bradley offspring) Sir Ferdinand Lestrange oversees the Control Room at the Centre, and even the villagers make an impression, bearing surnames like Coffin and Mort or possessing outsized personalities, like Mrs. Commy-Platt, the self-proclaimed owner of Willington.
Added to this, Mrs. Bradley actually gets to employ her psychiatric training when she pays a memorable visit to Doctor Lecky's asylum. The prose and dialogue are consistently fast and engaging, and though the plot may be too tangled for its own good, one cannot accuse Brazen Tongue of being boring. This title -- long out of print and one of the hardest to find in the Mrs. Bradley series -- was reprinted in 2005 by Minnow Press. Many thanks to ADO and the publishers for their efforts.