DEATH OF A BURROWING MOLE (1982)
1982 Michael Joseph.
[Dame Beatrice:] “One thing is as certain as anything can be, though: she may have seen murder committed, but she herself could not have committed it in the way she describes; she is far too light and frail to collect even an unsuspecting man’s legs from under him and heave him over into an abyss.”
[Laura:] “Do you think she saw it done?”
“I shall not answer that. People have now lost any of the faith in psychologists they may ever have had. I think I shall take up stamp-collecting.”
A letter from Bonamy Monkshood to his godmother—a certain home office psychiatrist named Dame Beatrice Bradley—informs her that the young man and his friend will be spending the summer holiday searching for treasure. Bonamy and Tom Hassocks have received permission to work within the ruins of Holdy Castle, a coastal fortress that was witness to plenty of history. The men believe that a fortune in Royalist gold might still be buried within the castle’s rubble-filled wells, waiting for an enterprising adventurer to uncover and claim it. Bonamy and Tom quickly discover that the castle grounds are unusually crowded, however: two other expeditions are also underway. Professor Malpas Veryan, a headstrong academic, is working with colleague Nicholas Tynant to locate a Bronze Age burial ground. This archaeological dig has bumped up against another group intent on using the grounds: Edward Saltergate and his wife hope to restore Holdy’s original flanking-towers. While the three parties wearily tolerate each other at first, tempers soon flare and land claims fall into dispute.
The presence of an alluring young academic, Susannah Lochlure, is a further cause of contention among the men, and a pair of unreliable workers (by the surnames of Stickle and Stour) adds to the troubles. After a hot and heated work week, Bonamy informs his grandmother that Professor Veryan’s body has been found, the victim of a fall from the tower. A telescope lies nearby, but it is suspiciously devoid of prints. Intrigued, Dame Beatrice interviews the party members and soon uncovers an abundance of motives. Digging further, the sleuth arrives at an answer—but not before two more victims fall prey to Holdy Castle’s fatal spell.
It is often surprising to me—and yet it should not be surprising at all—that the detective novels Gladys Mitchell wrote in the last decade of her life and career are so lucid, uncluttered, and enjoyable. The author was presumably past the age of 80 when she penned Death of a Burrowing Mole, and while it may not be a groundbreaking work of plot or style, it is admirably high-spirited and well-researched, and is actually an improvement over some of her books published in the 1960s. If the murder investigation and alibi-checking here feels a bit procedural and subdued, it should be noted that the story is delivered quite successfully, with commendable focus and clarity. The villain’s identity becomes apparent a few chapters before the reveal, but Miss Mitchell offers up a nice variant on the least-likely suspect gambit. The ruined-castle setting (and the researchers squabbling over it) allows for a discussion of architecture and archaeology which adds to the book’s spirit without overwhelming it.
Late-period quality is not the only surprising element our octogenarian author delivers: intriguingly, some of the characters in Gladys Mitchell’s twilight novels are provided with a forceful sexuality. Death of a Burrowing Mole offers two such raised-eyebrow plotlines: the alibi of Dame Beatrice’s godson and his friend depends on confirmation from a pair of town girls they bedded on the night in question. And it’s not just the men who chase after the attractive Susannah Lochlure, but two university girls are also in competition to get noticed by the older woman. (One even lures la Lochlure to her parents’ empty home, presumably with amorous attentions.) The moments are handled with relative restraint, but their implications are not in doubt. In this way, Mole joins entries like Nest of Vipers and Here Lies Gloria Mundy, which weave themes of sex and lesbianism into the author’s already engaging plotlines. And perhaps this is not surprising at all: in Dame Beatrice’s inaugural mystery, she solved the murder of a woman who lived as a male mountaineer. As a psycho-analyst, very little would shock Mrs. Bradley. The same might have applied to her creator.