DEATH OF A DELFT BLUE (1964)
1964 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1964 London House, 1965 British Book Centre, 1990 Severn House (as Death in Amsterdam).
"[It] is obvious what must have happened," said Dame Beatrice.
"They shared some poison sweets? Could be, of course, but who'd want to poison two simple village maidens? Rural England is getting beyond a joke!"
"Rural England has always been beyond a joke where violent death is concerned, child. Do you not remember Sherlock Holmes' famous dictum? That more dark deeds were committed in the lonely countryside than ever took place in the London slums was his opinion, and I do not think he was altogether wrong."
While attending a conference in Holland, Dame Beatrice Bradley makes the acquaintance of a chatty but spirited girl named Binnie Colwyn-Welch. Acting on an invitation to meet the rest of Binnie's relations, Dame Beatrice and secretary Laura Gavin are soon surrounded by the eccentric fruit of three comingled family trees. Binnie is set to marry cousin Bernardo Rose, much to the chagrin of Binnie's brother Florian and Bernardo's outspoken grandmother Rebekah. The match does please patriarch Bernard van Zestien, however, an elderly man worth a fortune from his business dealings in diamonds. Combining duty with holiday pleasure, Dame Beatrice and Laura enjoy exploring the Netherlandic towns while keeping an eye on the potentially volatile group of natives.
Shortly after Aunt Opal commissions a portrait of the beautiful-yet-cruel features of Florian (including a second study of the young man's hand holding a "delft blue" hyacinth flower), the subject goes missing. An earlier accident involving polish left on the stairs--coupled with a street barrel-organ playing an unusual Scottish lament for the dead--puts the wind up, and Dame Beatrice decides to look into the matter. The trail brings her back to Britain, where Florian might have met his fate while exploring the mines and caves outside Derbyshire. But Laura is spared from rappelling into the cavernous Eldon Hole (much to her adventure-loving dismay): Florian is discovered alive, but not out of trouble. Shortly thereafter, two barmaids die from eating poisoned chocolates, and the pretty young man may have been the intended victim--or a deliberate murderer.
It is rare when Gladys Mitchell's love of travel does not strengthen her fiction. Whether her books are set abroad, like Come Away, Death's trip through the temples of Greece or The Twenty-Third Man's tropical Tenerife locale, or closer to home, Mitchell is nearly always a smart evocator of landscape and uses her chosen surroundings to great effect. In contrast, Death of a Delft Blue places her well-travelled detective in Amsterdam and Holland, with diminishing results. But the foreign landscape isn't really to blame: the story's first obstacle is instead the fractious family at the mystery story's center, a group whose talkative members quickly overtake the scenery. The three interrelated families are not easy to sort out--Mitchell provides a lineage chart in the preface, and the reader needs it. As the plot winds along on its cause-and-effect course, there seems a curious lack of urgency here. A late chapter even begins with the line, "Time being no longer of the essence, Dame Beatrice and Laura spent the better part of a week in Holland." If the detective is in no hurry to get to the bottom of the mystery, one can hardly blame the reader for showing a certain lack of interest as well.
Death of a Delft Blue also finds Gladys Mitchell at her most tangential. The indulgence of creating and folding into dialogue all manner of literary allusions--Biblical, poetical, mythological, and historical--proves occasionally interesting, but it's also digressive and trying. Rudyard Kipling, Parson Woodforde and his diary entries, and Samuel Butler's Hudibras are just a few of the many conversation topics. The phrase origins of "at sixes and sevens," "higgledy-piggledy," and "through thick and thin" are also discussed at length. These educational tangents would not feel so intrusive if the story plotting was faster or stronger or both. As is, it's like being seated for a meal and offered nothing but the history of the glassware. It's delft blue, and sadly not of the manufacturer's best quality.