COLD, LONE AND STILL (1983)
1983 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1985 Michael Joseph.
"Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley?" I asked hopefully, for the voice inspired confidence.
"Who is speaking?" I gave my name and asked whether Dame Beatrice would see me. I was asked my business.
"I'd like to become a patient," I said.
"She takes very few cases nowadays. What's the trouble? You can tell me. I'm her secretary."
"I've recently come back from walking some of the West Highland Way, and I've had a very disturbing experience."
"What kind of experience?"
"I stumbled over the dead body of a man I thought I knew. This was somewhere on Rannoch Moor, but he turned up hale and hearty at Fort William."
Comrie Melrose, in his business life an easy-tempered literary agent, has planned a holiday that will double as a compatibility test: he will traverse the highlands of Scotland with his fiancee, the striking beauty Hera, to ensure that the couple can weather the ups-and-downs of both countryside and relationship. While walking The Way, Comrie and Hera encounter a number of fellow travelers including the garrulous mate's mate Carbridge and the handsome Mr. Todd. Both men notice Hera's presence--too much so--and Comrie rebukes them for their impudence, Todd with words and Carbridge with a swift shove. Soon Comrie and Hera are back on the trail to Fort William, hoping to leave the party far behind.
But fate is not so easily shaken: seeking shelter from a sudden rainstorm, the pair ducks into an abandoned stone farmhouse. In a dark passageway, Comrie stumbles literally upon a man's body, a dagger protruding from the lifeless form. Convinced that it is Carbridge (and not wishing to draw suspicion), the couple agrees to give no alarm, but to leave the murder site as soon as possible. Their shock is rather justified then when, some days later, an incontestably alive Carbridge saunters into their hotel, the rest of the hiking party trailing after him. The identity of the farmhouse body soon comes to light, but Comrie worries that his discovery that night is a portent of graver things to come.
And that is just how matters manage to play out. Reluctantly accepting an invitation for a reunion with the motley band of hikers, Comrie finds himself in a building on the campus of a polytechnic school. Anxious for some air, a helpful hangman-turned-housemaster suggests Comrie try a shadowy corridor for a bit of a stroll. At the end of the passage, Comrie finds the body of Carbridge, a Scottish sgian dubh dagger stuck into him. It suddenly appears that the hiker's party houses a murderer after all.
An enjoyable enough late-late novel (one of three to be published posthumously), Cold, Lone and Still benefits from a couple pleasant details. For one, Gladys Mitchell's travelogue specifics--here tracing the Scottish Highland Way--are still lucid and entertaining for the armchair tourist. Second, though Miss Mitchell's Cold, Lone protagonist is once again a literary man (many of the last-decade Dame Beatrice tales are narrated by a male writer), his rocky alliance with fiancee Hera provides some diverting characterization and even suspense. The cold beauty becomes an intriguing murder suspect, one who just might be ambitious enough to plan an attack on her husband-to-be's agency partner. There are also references here to some earlier adventures, notably 1974's Winking at the Brim (Sally Lestrange is approached to pen the ex-hangman's memoirs) and this fun exchange casting all the way back to 1929's inaugural Speedy Death:
"The trouble with juries," said Dame Beatrice, "is that they have no conception of what really constitutes evidence. If they had, I, for one, should not be with you today."
I stared at her, but she cackled, so I concluded that she had not meant what her sinister hint implied.
Cold, Lone and Still also displays the grounded prose style and procedural plotting that marks so many of Gladys Mitchell's later books. Dame Beatrice, once she appears after several chapters, is a shadow of the formidible figure to be found in her earliest cases. Further, this tale is burdened with some contrived coincidences and an overly vague gallery of suspects. These criticisms are nothing new; such shortcomings are increasingly on display as the canon progresses through the decades. And yet Cold, Lone and Still is not a bad book, just an unsurprising one. Even writing into her eighties, Gladys Mitchell never drops her narrative thread, and her storytelling pace never falters. Worth a look for completists.