DEAD MEN'S MORRIS (1936)
1936 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1986 Michael Joseph Jubilee Edition.
"Tes iron!" he yelled, as he brought it down with a swing. Mrs. Bradley leapt nimbly aside, and the descending bar struck the top of the copper, in front of which she was standing, with so much force that a sharp pain flew up Priest's arm almost to the elbow and he dropped the weapon in order to hold his wrist. Mrs. Bradley picked up the iron bar, and handled it as though it had been a rapier.
"Quick march, outside," she said, as she gave him a vicious poke. He swung on her, but a smart push in the diaphragm settled his hash. He doubled up. Mrs. Bradley poked him upright. He turned, and, cursing her, began to walk to the door. Half-way up the centre gangway, he essayed a surprise attack, and received another jab.
"Ee'll enjure me for life, that's what ee'll do!"
"So would the hangman, if you had killed me," said Mrs. Bradley, laughing.
Bearing a gift of a stuffed boar's head, Mrs. Beatrice Lestrange Bradley descends upon her nephew Carey Lestrange's Oxfordshire pig farm for the holidays. The house is a lively one: in addition to Mrs. Bradley's grandnephew Denis and chauffeur George, country life is well maintained by Mrs. Ditch, whose husband and sons are hearty practitioners of the morris dance. News travels that a neighboring solicitor has received a note with money challenging the man to attend a ghost-watch for the appearance of a local legend. The unfortunate lawyer accepts the terms, and meets his fate along the riverside, presumably dead of a heart attack.
Foul play--if any there be, argues the unconvinced country inspector--may have been instigated by a quarrelsome pig farmer named Simith, who had a standing feud with the solicitor. The suspect, however, meets his end shortly thereafter; apparently, it is death-by-boar. Such colorful demises intrigue the old psychoanalyst, and Mrs. Bradley begins investigating in earnest, uncovering hidden motives, secret passages, defaced churches, and even finds murderous intent in a series of pig book entries. As the winter gives way to spring, Mrs. Bradley grows increasingly concerned that the killer may strike again, and this time much too close to the Lestrange farm.
All positive traits seem to be firmly in place for Dead Men's Morris: murders in a rural village, inventive use of local custom, endearing rustics (in the form of the Ditch family), zipalong plotting that never stays stationary for too long, a hearty family factotum in the form of pig-farmer Carey Lestrange, and best of all, a lively, cackling, and surprisingly human Beatrice Bradley. (The humanity may be due to a welcome display of doubt worn by the usually omniscient sleuth.) Indeed, the book's final chapter, where Mrs. Croc unmasks the murderer at a Whitsun morris dance, combines all of the above strengths in a climax that proves one of the sharpest in all of Gladys Mitchell's mysteries. And yet, at least upon an initial reading, Morris fell short of the classic status I had hoped to discover.
As enjoyable as the Ditches' dialect-rounded speech is to decipher (sample line: "Tes low, I submet, but I orfen envies the gippo women with their pipes"), it tends to wear on a reader after 200 pages. Further, Mrs. Bradley's constant dialoguing with others on the possible variations of murderer-motive, while well within the domain of the mystery novel, can't wholly escape a repetitious tedium. Personally, I found the book's final third operating more strongly than that which preceded it, and the whole tale is unique enough to distance itself from the more routine outings found in the titles of later years. Gladys Mitchell is unsurpassed in coupling compelling mystery plots with excellent observations on British lore and tradition, and Dead Men's Morris offers a winning combination, with both fields getting detailed, loving attention.
Though not strictly a sequel, A Hearse on May-Day (1972) follows in Morris's footsteps, with another Lestrange caught up in a village's rites and revels--these involving the zodiac and the mythical Green Man--and comes recommended.