FAINTLEY SPEAKING (1954)
1954 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1956 Penguin paperback; 1976 Michael Joseph reissue; 1979 Magna Large Print; 1986 St. Martin's Press; 2001 Black Dagger Crime.
Cover scan provided by Bevis Benneworth.
The woman was dead. There was no doubt about that. The manner of her death was also apparent. A knife, of the type used by Commando troops during the war, had been thrust very neatly and cleanly into the side of her neck. Laura let the gorse fall back and was in time to intercept Mark, who had relinquished his impromptu crow's-nest and was so soft-footed in his tennis shoes that she had not heard him approach.
"Keep off," said Laura. She held her towel, now full of gorse prickles, between Mark and the dead woman.
"Why, what's up?" asked Mark. He looked scared, and, suddenly, very much younger than his age. "It isn't Miss Faintley, is it?"
"Heavens, no!" said Laura, in a hearty, unnatural voice.
On a rainy, miserable night, down-on-his-luck author George Mandsell ducks into a public telephone box, intending to call his publisher and ask for an advance. As soon as he is inside, the phone begins to ring. Answering it, he discovers that the caller is a Miss Faintley, and in no uncertain terms she tells him to pick up a parcel from a neighboring station and to deliver it to a shady shopowner in the village. Before Mandsell can explain that she has mistaken him for another errand-runner, she rings off. Spotting the chance to make a little money while also perhaps finding inspiration for a story idea in the adventure, the penniless author sets out to retrieve the package.
A short while later, 13-year old Mark Street is dismayed to find his least favorite school teacher staying at the same hotel where he and his family are passing their summer holiday. Worse luck, Miss Faintley (referred to by Mark as "old Semi-Conscious") has uncharacteristically asked him to accompany her to a nearby town. With a schoolboy's resourcefulness, Mark slips away from his teacher at Torbury and returns to the hotel for an unsupervised swim. He begins to worry, however, when Miss Faintley doesn't return to the hotel by the following day, and confides as much to Laura Menzies, a fellow guest and newfound companion in athletic activities.
Out for an early morning hike, Mark and Laura discover a deserted house surrounded by woods on one side and coastline on the other. Ignoring "no trespassing" signs, they investigate and eventually come upon a woman's body lying among the gorse. Laura alerts her employer, Mrs. Beatrice Bradley, and the old detective soon picks up the scent. If the body is that of Miss Faintley, who killed her, and why? After a visit to the caves at Lascaux, the consultation of some botany books, a little seafaring surveillance, and the befriending of both Mr. Mandsell and a Latin-speaking parrot, Mrs. Bradley is ready to deliver a solution.
After a decent innocent-man-gets-caught-up-in-mysterious-events opening, Faintley Speaking soon settles into the form of a Mitchell holiday adventure story, thus continuing its similarities with 1948's The Dancing Druids and 1963's Adders on the Heath. (For the record, Druids is easily the best tale of the three. Faintley Speaking weaves a slightly less preposterous yarn while carrying clearer explanations than those found in Adders, making it the marginally better of the two books.) Also, like Adders, a form of smugglers' code is deployed that is so strange and impracticably narrow that it hardly seems worth the effort. The whole story is very much of a "shaggy dog" quality, with plot developments arising from such passive activities as surveillance of suspects and conversations with the detective-inspector. It all makes for a somewhat inert book, and one with too much Laura (she takes over Miss Faintley's post at school and proceeds to interview all and sundry) and not enough of the cackling Mrs. Croc.
All told, Faintley Speaking is a competent, straightforward entry in the Mrs. Bradley series, but with an author who has produced a number of classically unique tales, mere readability is not overly worthy of praise. For those interested in Gladys Mitchell trivia, you may wish to note that Laura's Carteret College confederate, Alice Boorman (who first appeared in 1942's Laurels Are Poison), turns up for a late-chapter cameo, and that this is yet another Mitchell story to use a school as a backdrop for murder. The parrot clue was used before (in the obvious manner in which parrots can be used as clues in murder mysteries) in 1943's challenging Sunset over Soho. And Mrs. Bradley once again takes a schoolboy into her confidence (and will continue to do so), a practice used to most memorable effect in the books The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop, The Rising of the Moon, and Tom Brown's Body.