LAURELS ARE POISON (1942)
1942 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1961 Penguin paperback; 1972 Tom Stacey; 1986 Hogarth Press; 2001 Chivers Press; 2012 Rue Morgue Press; 2014 Vintage Press.
"And now," [Mrs. Bradley] said to Deborah, when Kitty had gone, "what makes you so certain that there is no connexion between the snakes and the activities in the boxroom, child?"
"Well, I can see the point of snakes in a Demonstration lesson, and, dimly, that some idiots might think the-- the First-Night rag screamingly funny. I mean, there is a school of thought--but the coat-slashing and disinfectant seem quite different, somehow. Of course, I'm not a psychologist," she added.
"Oh, yes, you are," said Mrs. Bradley. "There are two sets of rags being carried on. You are perfectly right."
Mrs. Bradley, celebrated psychoanalyst, arrives at Cartaret women's training college intending to fill a vacancy left by a house warden from the previous semester. The missing staff member, Miss Murchan, disappeared during the end-of-term dance and failed to surface again. Add to that the possibility that Miss Murchan may have witnessed, or even been involved in, the death of a young student earlier that year, and the warden's abrupt absence from college begins to look very sinister indeed.
Mrs. Bradley 's arrival is met with a rash of busy--and sometimes menacing--practical jokes: bathrooms are flooded, snakes are let loose in a classroom, clothing is savagely slashed, and one girl's hair is cut off while she sleeps. Fortunately, the energetic new warden takes into her confidence the sub-warden, an intelligent young woman named Deborah Cloud, and a trio of colorful students: outgoing, outspoken Laura Menzies, future hairstylist Kitty Trevelyan, and shy but physically strong Alice Boorman. Together, the group combats the increasingly mischievous pranks, but even Mrs. Bradley is unable to anticipate the murder of the house cook: the woman's body is found downstream in the nearby river, with her corsets floating separately among the weeds.
It soon becomes clear that the Cartaret grounds contain a fugitive, but is this person the missing Miss Murchan? And if so, then whose bones were boiled in the abandoned quarry? And what of the rather suspiciously named Miss Cornflake, a new student who possesses the commanding presence of an experienced teacher? Mrs. Bradley keeps admirable track of all these details and more, disarming pistol-wielding mental patients and dodging murderous attackers while moving determinedly towards the mystery's conclusion.
Gladys Mitchell has admitted a special affection for Laurels Are Poison, saying that the book's setting of a women's training college was based on her own (fondly evoked) experiences in a similar institution. Laurels is filled with high-spirited dialogue and camaraderie, and author Mitchell spends considerable time with the self-proclaimed "Three Musketeers": Kitty and Alice will return in a number of the later Mrs. Bradley books, and Laura Menzies (later Gavin) will assume the role of Mrs. Croc's secretary and Watson for nearly all of the subsequent stories, occasionally supplanting the psychoanalyst sleuth altogether and tackling much of the physical detective work on her own. Laurels marks the first appearance of all three women, and it introduces a future Bradley-by-marriage, Deborah Cloud. (She marries Jonathan by the end of this book; Mrs. Bradley thoroughly approves of the match between nephew and sub-warden.)
Though the prose and plotline are more sober than in early farces like The Saltmarsh Murders or The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop, Miss Mitchell has provided Laurels Are Poison's youthful cast with energetic, inspired comic dialogue that nicely captures the personality of each character. Here's a brief example, as Laura comments on her group's chances against the college mischief-maker: "Now I've got my hockey stick, you've got a cricket-stump each, and if we can't manage, between us, to knock any ghost for six, I shall be surprised." And in passages like the following one -- as Kitty Trevelyan attempts to teach a class of unruly children -- Mitchell's use of vernacular in speech and understatement in prose add to an already smart mystery plot a delightful Waughian sense of spirited humour:
"So you see," said Kitty, "all you do -- hey, you, in the back row, stop pulling that girl's hair! No, dash it, you weren't doing up her slide. You were pulling her hair; I saw you. Oh, don't argue. You listen to me. Oh, hullo, Miss Topas. Take a seat, won't you... Now, you perishers--that is children -- look here, this is the point. No, not the decimal point, haddock! The point of my remarks. In other words, what I'm saying. Oh, all right, if you won't listen, you won't. Sit up, and we'll do some Pence Table. Don't know it? Don't know Pence Table? How does your father make out his betting slips, then? Come on, all of you. Twelve pence are one shilling. Eighteen pence are half a dollar. No, I'm wrong, at that."
She got the class laughing. Then she rolled her eyes at Miss Topas, and went back to multiplying decimals. Miss Topas gave her an average mark, prayed inaudibly for her soul, and passed out [of the room], highly appreciative, but, she feared, wrong-headedly so, of Kitty's capabilities as an instructor.
Laurels Are Poison is also notable for the number of physical dangers put in Mrs. Bradley's path, all of which the older lady sidesteps -- and counterattacks -- with considerable aplomb. Mrs. Bradley herein is threatened with a gun, halfbricks are heaved at her head, and she is stalked within the school halls. It is interesting that such moments of suspense are introduced into the story in a sudden manner, lasting for just a page or two, and then are resolved just as quickly. Rather than drawing out (or milking) these moments of suspense, their presence comes as a surprise to the reader, and the author's portrayal of her protagonist as an ultra-capable, almost omniscient, detective is reinforced by the quick resolution of the conflict; Mrs. Bradley is once more in control, as it should be. For who else is fit to unravel this complicated but enjoyable mystery story?
Laurels Are Poison was chosen as a Mitchell Mystery Reading Group title in September 2020! See what readers had to say about the book by visiting these links: