HERE COMES A CHOPPER (1946)
1946 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1972 Tom Stacey, 2014 Vintage Press.
French translation 2003 Paris: Éditions 10/18, as L’homme sans tête, tr. Katia Holmes.
Cover scan provided by Ash Rare Books.
"How came you, sir," [the inspector] asked, "to come upon the corpse in the coppice?"
"I was looking for it," said Roger. "That is to say, I was looking for Mr. Lingfield. That is to say, I was helping to look for him, you know."
"You knew Mr. Lingfield, then?"
"No, but the dog did. At least, we hoped it did."
"The dog, sir?"
"We were tracking Mr. Lingfield with the help of an Alsatian puppy."
Roger Hoskyn and Dorothy Woodcote are spending their Easter weekend holiday on a walking tour of the English countryside. Toward day's end, the pair find themselves still a long distance from a train station and decide to stop at Whiteledge, a country manor house, to ask directions. To their surprise, the butler ushers them in and leads them to bedrooms and baths, where the travellers are to wash and then join the the house for dinner. Arriving at table, Roger and Dorothy are soon in the company of some interesting persons: they recognize Claudia Denbies, a striking redhead and a celebrated violinist, and master George Merrow, whose birthday the party is celebrating, as two of three horse riders who passed them that afternoon. Dorothy notices that the third rider, a tall, handsome man, is absent from the group, and an enquiry reveals that Mr. Harry Lingfield went out riding and has not yet returned. Dorothy also learns that her and Roger's invitations were given by the superstitious and eccentric Lady Catherine Leith, who didn't want Lingfield's appearance to create thirteen at table. To Roger's right sits an unsettling old lady named Mrs. Bradley, whose black eyes take in the details of all her dining companions.
Mr. Lingfield still hasn't returned to Whiteledge by the following day, and Mrs. Bradley and the travellers, under the auspices of taking the dog for a walk, retrace the trail on which Dorothy and Roger saw the horse riders. The dog disappears into a copse, and its pursuers come across the naked and headless body of a man. It appears to be the body of the missing Mr. Lingfield, but there is some opposition to this theory, notably from Claudia Denbies, Lingfield's lover. The corpse's head is not found at the scene, and an inquest only seems to raise more questions. Mrs. Bradley has been acting as a consulting psychiatrist for someone in the house, but will not reveal her patient's identity to the police. A Scottish train conductor testifies to seeing a decapitated body laying across the tracks. The inspector's suspicion falls on Mrs. Denbies, but then who is responsible for three attempts on Roger's life, and why? When a second beheading occurs, Mrs. Bradley steps in and offers a solution which incorporates archery, sculpture, second sight, seven and sixpence, the "mount of Venus," tripwire, barbed wire and a burned-out car in high-spirited (if rather unbelievable) fashion.
Here Comes a Chopper gives cackling, yellow-clawed Mrs. Bradley an opportunity to display two more memorable talents: shooting with a bow and arrow (she "had scored, it appeared, a gold and two reds, a total of twenty-three points") and performing for an appreciative audience "Ave Maria" (with Spanish dance to follow) on the violoncello. Several other scenes also have a delicious surrealness to them, including the bizarre dinner party, a dead-of-night outdoor search on Mrs. Bradley's grounds, and a vigil kept by the detective, loaded gun aimed at the doorway, as she advises Dorothy to get some sleep. I found this tale a return in style to Gladys Mitchell's very first books, stories of unconventional murders and murderers such as those in Speedy Death and The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop. I also found this book to be a bit uneven, a not-quite-cohered mixture of mystery, romance, thriller and comedy. The initial two chapters, which chronicle in detail Dorothy and Roger's countryside progress as the lovers-to-be bicker all the while, are particularly tedious.
On the subject of romance and its place in the detective novel, I submit that I've never found Miss Mitchell's use of couples and cupid to hamper her stories, and it often provides enjoyable character development. Perhaps the key is not to let the romance element overshadow the mystery element, and I've yet to find a Mitchell book where this maxim was not upheld. When a Gladys Mitchell story goes off track, it's usually a result of incoherent plotting, as is somewhat on display here. The murders and motivation can't bear close scrutiny, but happily this doesn't get in the way of Chopper's shear -- er, sheer -- entertainment. This is a fun if not stellar book, and it gives Mrs. Bradley another chance to tackle a country house murder in her own inimitable way.