DEATH AND THE MAIDEN (1947)
1947 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1973 Lythway Press, Bath; 2009 Rue Morgue Press; 2010 and 2017, Vintage Press.
French translation 2004 Paris: Éditions 10/18, as L’oncle de Tenerife, tr. Katia Holmes.
Cover scan provided by Nicholas Fuller.
[Mrs. Bradley:] "These murders are not native to the place. They have been planted here by the devil, or some of his agents."
"By the power of witchcraft, more likely. Strange, when you come to think of it, how many people must have believed in witches."
"I had a remote ancestress who was a witch," said Mrs. Bradley with great complacence. The inspector, stealing a glance at her black eyes, and at the yellow countenance whose bones had been the architecture of a beauty now fallen into decay, felt very much inclined to believe it.
Miss Prissie Carmody has a full house. She was living quietly and happily with her ward, nineteen-year old Connie, in her South-west London flat when Prissie's second cousin appeared, his young wife in tow. Edris Tidson spent the war years as a banana grower on the Canary Islands, but now he and wife Crete are staying--perhaps permanently--with their frustrated but polite aunt. Connie, however, is quick to show her dislike of the invasion. One day, Edris reads in the newspaper a letter proclaiming the sighting of a naiad, or water-nymph, in the River Itchen. Excited by this whimsical account, Edris organizes a family excursion to Winchester (which Miss Carmody is to sponsor) in search of the nymph, even though no one shares his enthusiasm on this subject.
In Winchester, the quartet establish as their base the Domus, an attractive old hotel near the waterways. Here, Edris's zeal for the water-nymph grows, as does Connie's antagonism for the Tidsons. Ostensibly fearing that her cousin may be mentally unwell, Miss Carmody invites Mrs. Bradley, a passing acquaintance from Cartaret College, to the hotel to unofficially observe the man and his obsession. Mrs. Croc. accepts the offer, and her saurian presence is felt among the family. The psychiatrist decides Mr. Tidson is quite sane, but realizes that there's more occuring between Tidsons and Carmodys than meets the eye.
Shortly after returning to her house and clinic in Kensington, Laura arrives with a newspaper bearing sad news: a twelve-year old boy was found drowned in a stream outside of Winchester. Mrs. Bradley returns to the Domus to investigate, this time with Laura and her college friend, Kitty Trevelyan. Fellow Cartaret graduate (and "third Musketeer") Alice Boorman is also called into service, and it is she who finds the second body: a seventeen-year old boy lying face down by a weir, his feet bare, his leg broken. Speculators on the deaths start to advance the theory that the naiad is luring the boys after her and drowning them, and Mrs. Bradley sets out to disprove this fanciful and frightening idea.
Can the plot of a fair-play detective story be abstruse and illogical yet still succeed? Many would answer no; the murder mystery, more than any other literary genre, is by definition a solvable puzzle presented from author to reader, and if the author is worth her salt, she'll provide clues and signs necessary for the reader to reach the solution when the story's detective does. If there's no overlaying logic -- if characters simply act randomly, and motivations are ultimately left obscured or absent -- then that sense of fair play disappears, and the reader is left to feel frustrated and/or cheated. (An even more egregious detective writing sin -- and one which Miss Mitchell rarely transgresses -- is the withholding of clues or information from the reader; in fact, in this Mitchell book and many others, there is such an overabundance of clues and odd facts that their sheer weight in volume risks collapsing the plot structure on which they sit.)
Death and the Maiden is a definite -- maybe the definitive -- example of a Mitchell tale where storytelling imagination outdistances and ultimately defeats coherent plotting. Whether this book "succeeds" depends on the expectations of the reader. If you need clear, linear explanations of motive, alibi, and character provided by the author to come to a satisfying resolution (in other words, if you need a plot where everything "clicks" believably into place), then this book will be a very unrewarding experience. But if you're willing to ride the wave of incidents and accept the story's whimsical meanderings, then you're granted access to a rich, entertaining landscape full of wonderfully devious flora and fauna, a place where Mrs. Bradley, resembling a pterodactyl and capable of extreme strength and a vise-like grip, feels right at home.
Please note that Gladys Mitchell does indeed provide motives, methods and culprits for the crimes that occur in her books. It's just that, upon having a murderer or motive named by Mrs. Bradley, the reader tries to tie in all the other incidents and actions to support this new evidence, and it's often rough going. Compounded with this, so many of the bizarre details, continually talked about and questioned by the protagonists, are ultimately moot points or dismissed unsatisfactorily in one quick reference. Here's just one example from Death and the Maiden, and this is one of many busy subplots: Laura and Gavin encounter Crete Tidson, nude, at the side of the river, half drowned. They manage to resuscitate her, Gavin wraps her in his coat and they carry her back to the hotel. Who tried to kill her? This question is answered by the end of the book. Motive can also be inferred, though it's not explicitly stated. These questions are left: Why was she naked? Why was she in the river? Where are her clothes? How did the attempted murderer sneak away without Laura and Gavin noticing? Why didn't Crete name her assailant? Some answers just raise more questions: her clothes are found at the river's bottom, weighed down with stones. Why? How could this help the murderer, already pressed for time? Miss Mitchell's plots are almost always frenetically busy, and incident piles upon incident until Mrs. Bradley decides it's time to provide explanations. Sometimes they're quite satisfactory: e.g., The Saltmarsh Murders, Death at the Opera; sometimes they're less so: e.g., Wraiths and Changelings, Death and the Maiden.
And yet I give this book four stars, convoluted plot and all. Why? I do so upon the strength of the statement I made at the beginning: this is a story where imagination wins over logic. The story is so entertaining, and the characters and situations so intriguing, I'm able to accept, even celebrate, the absence of such strictures as believability and reality. And really, what place do these two Gloomy Gus philosophies have in the world of mystery fiction? True, there must be some tether to reality. Murderers can't escape locked rooms by demolecularizing and reshaping after slipping through the keyhole; if so, you're in the land of science fiction, maybe horror. But all of Miss Mitchell's books provide escape (for me) to a world that is much more attractive, generous, humorous and enjoyable than those inhabited by contemporary reality-based thriller writers. Gladys Mitchell provides so much imagination, so much life in her books, even the lesser and barely coherent tales sparkle and breathe.
Death and the Maiden offers many pleasures if you're receptive to them: Mrs. Bradley entering a witness's home on the pretext of purchasing her geranium plant; the welcome reappearance (and spirited conversation) of Kitty and Alice, introduced in Laurels Are Poison; Laura's optimistic observation that a suspect's room is "practically knee-deep in fingerprints;" an ingenious sort of double-blind motive to explain the actions of the murderer and the reactions of another; more clues and red herrings than you can count, including sandals, panama hats, ghosts, forked sticks, black eyes, inheritances, fishing rods, and, at the center of it all, the elusive water-nymph of the River Itchen. You can cite scientific facts and say that such a creature could never exist; I argue that it's more fun to surrender to the siren song and enjoy the enchanted journey upon which you're taken.