DEATH AT THE OPERA (1934)
1934 Grayson & Grayson. Published as Death in the Wet, 1934 Macrae-Smith (U.S.). Reprinted 1939 Penguin paperback; 1990 Sphere paperback; 1992 Black Dagger Crime; 2005 Rue Morgue Press; 2010 Vintage UK.
It was a quarter-past four by the time she reached the school gate, and the junior forms had been dismissed and came past her in groups. One child of about twelve accosted her.
“Please, Mrs. Bradley, was Miss Ferris really murdered?”
Mrs. Bradley smiled in the manner of a well-disposed and kindly boa-constrictor, and poked her small interlocutor in the ribs.
“Go and ask your Headmaster,” she said.
For a thoroughly unremarkable Maths Mistress, Calma Ferris had an uncanny habit of creating enemies. The quiet young woman uncovered a secret affair between two of her colleagues; she enraged the Physical Training Mistress by holding a key netball player after class, compromising the tournament game; she stumbled into the Art Master’s clay sculpture of Psyche, damaging it irreparably. She was accidental witness to an embarrassing scene between a love struck student and the Headmaster’s niece. Even on holiday at her begrudging aunt’s boarding-house, Miss Ferris made the acquaintance of a man who is discovered to be an acquitted wife-murderer. In short, recent weeks have not been tranquil for Calma Ferris.
But Miss Ferris receives the role of ‘Katisha’ in the Hillmaston School production of The Mikado—partly owed to her funding of the play—and life begins to look up. A disastrous dress rehearsal, superstition has it, should lead to a fine opening night. And indeed the performance of the operetta goes particularly well, although director Alceste Boyle must step on stage to take over for an absent Miss Ferris. After the show, the cause for the actor’s disappearance is discovered: she has been drowned in a sink full of water backstage. The drain pipe has been stoppered with modeling clay, and despite a coroner’s verdict of suicide, the majority of the school staff harbors an uneasy belief that Miss Ferris was murdered.
Mrs. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley looks into the matter at the Headmaster’s request, and she systematically uncovers the many affairs the murdered woman was witness to. She also takes a great interest in an elusive electrician who was there the night of the murder, who may have had a hand in disconnecting the light switch in the water lobby where Miss Ferris was found, and who may or may not be the man who stood trial for drowning his wife. Mrs. Bradley also must consider the actions of a pair of likeable but emotional older students who took part in the play, and may have had motives of their own to quiet the Maths Mistress. The psychiatrist detective manages to arrive at a culprit with a surprising motive, but not before two more people meet their deaths through drowning.
Death at the Opera just might be Gladys Mitchell's finest story of detection. A small masterpiece of fair-play clueing--as well as a vibrant rendering of a school community--Opera belongs alongside titles like The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop, The Saltmarsh Murders, and When Last I Died, books which represent some of the author's very best genre work. As Mrs. Bradley examines the suspects in turn, the elderly detective here always considers the driving factors of motive, means, and psychological aptitude, especially when considering the murder method employed. Several of the candidates fit two of the fields but fall short on the third, and the reader is allowed access to Mrs. Bradley's reasoning for almost the entire journey. After scrutinizing all of the suspects--and detouring to collar a George Joseph Smith-like "Brides in the Bath" serial drowner--Miss Mitchell provides her sleuth with a realization that lets Mrs. Bradley confront and reveal the murderer...on the book's final page.
Whether the reader finds the culprit's motive inspired or unbelievable, one must admire Miss Mitchell's ability to work so easily both within the confines of respected mystery conventions and also, as a winking and highly entertaining satirist, outside of them. (The motive here, I find, is an improved variation of the one found in a previous title, 1930's The Longer Bodies.) And although this was my fourth reading of Death at the Opera, the tale was as fresh and enjoyable as the first time I encountered it. This is due in part to the author's ability to craft a surprisingly sympathetic victim. In the short time that the reader follows Calma Ferris through her unlucky interactions with co-workers, relations, and life in general, a lonely but vivid picture quickly forms. By the time Mitchell writes of her, having blotted the [diary] entry carefully, she went to bed, and rose early in the morning to commence her last day on earth, the sentiment is a sad one, even though the character is filling a necessary role within a "conventional" mystery story as victim.
As with Tom Brown's Body, Laurels Are Poison, and other books, school mistress Mitchell uses her familiarity with academic institutions to great effect. Opera is also one of those excellent early titles to make use of excerpts from Mrs. Bradley's notebook, presented here as a brief appendix to the story's end. Highly recommended and thoroughly enjoyable, Death at the Opera offers an excellent performance.