DANCE TO YOUR DADDY (1969)
1969 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1986 Severn House; 2004 Thorndike Press Large Print; 2014 Thomas & Mercer (U.S.); 2014 Vintage Press.
[Ferdinand Lestrange:] "Who's been murdered then?"
[Dame Beatrice:] "A young man--well, I assume that he is young, or comparatively so--named Reverend Hubert Lestrange."
"A parson murdered? Rather unusual, what? What did he do? Rush in where angels fear to tread, and get himself clobbered?"
"I have no idea what he did. I have a feeling, however, that he was killed because of something he knew."
"That sounds as though he'd uncovered the family skeleton. Have we one?"
"I hoped you would be able and willing to tell me that."
Dame Beatrice is summoned to Galliard Hall by a heretofore unknown relative, one Romilly Lestrange, who asks his guest for her psychiatric opinion of his troubled wife. It turns out that the patient in question--a young woman called Trilby but preferring the name Rosamund--has, according to Romilly, lately developed a habit of tossing things off a cliff top and into into the sea at nine-month intervals. At last count, a transistor radio, a small cat, a pet monkey, and a realistic baby doll have been chucked over, and Romilly is concerned about what--or who--may follow. A conversation with the young woman, however, paints a different picture: Rosamund claims the sea story is a fiction, maintains that her clothes are kept locked up, and says that she is only allowed access to fancy dress costumes like her current Joan of Arc armor. What's more, she insists that she is not married to Romilly Lestrange, but that she is his ward, being kept from a rightful inheritance when she turns 25.
The sharp-eyed psychiatrist is unsure who to believe. There is something sinister in Romilly Lestrange's character and suspect in his relationship with the "housekeeper," Judith. But there also lies a strong play-acting element in Rosamund/Trilby's demeanor, with her penchant for forced hysterics. To untangle the knot found along this particular branch of the Lestrange family tree, Dame Beatrice confers with her son, Sir Ferdinand, and takes tea with her acerbic relation, Lady Selina. When Dame Beatrice is shot at during her stay at Galliard Hall--while in bed, from a squint hole in the wall--she decides to examine the will and testament of Felix Napoleon Lestrange and discovers, to her surprise, that she is one of the named beneficiaries. When the body of another relative is found floating in the sea (apparently run through with a sword from the house), Dame Beatrice must use both her psychiatric and her sleuthing skills to separate the slightly cracked from the criminally insane.
Dance to Your Daddy just might be Gladys Mitchell's last great, truly original story. It carries the slowing trademarks of the later books -- dialogue supplanting narrative; a less lively Dame Beatrice -- but it also offers up a suitably bizarre, entertainingly busy story allowing Dame B. to use her background in psychiatry, a specialization that's usually overlooked. Other late titles are well worth reading, especially Nest of Vipers, Late, Late in the Evening, and The Greenstone Griffins, but Dance, like the excellent mid-period entry The Twenty-Third Man, spins a story that is unique and satisfying.
Even though much of Dance to Your Daddy takes the form of conversation (passages appear almost as transcripts), the speech and subject are always intriguing, and the prose passages show Mitchell's impressive comic abilities. A felicitously named legal firm is introduced this way: The older members of Snapp, Snapp and Bacon had preceded their client to the grave, but, although there were no Snapps left, a scion of the Bacons was senior partner in the firm... And Dance contains one of the most enjoyable story openings I have come across:
Eiladh Beatrice Margaret Gavin, having put her fist in the minister's eye, submitted with placid fatalism to the ceremony of baptism. She was a happy baby and, since happiness has no history, she passes, for the purposes of the chronicler, into almost total obscurity.
"Well, that's that," observed Laura, her mother, when the cortege had returned to the Stone House in the village of Wandles Parva, "and now it's time I got back to work."
And sure enough, in the very next paragraph, Miss Mitchell introduces the mystery surrounding Romilly Lestrange and Galliard Hall. The plot in this book is coherent though not terribly plausible -- coherency alone being a strong enough Mitchell virtue to merit recommendation -- and the ending (and the murderer's fate) comes as a minor but interesting surprise. With the appearance of Lestranges Sir Ferdinand and Lady Selina (and the dubious relations Romilly and Rosamund), Dance to Your Daddy is a notably excellent family affair. Well worth a read.