MERLIN'S FURLONG (1953)
1953 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1975 Severn House.
Cover scan provided by Nicholas Fuller.
"What is it, madam?" enquired George, resting for a moment from his labours.
"I don't know, but it's possible that it's a coffin. Probe about a bit. Here, we might as well help you. These will do, at a pinch." She picked up a turfing iron, Harrison seized his, and whilst George stood aside until the size and nature of the find could be disclosed, they delicately slid aside the rubble. A modern coffin was disclosed. Mrs. Bradley laid aside her turfing iron, squatted down, and rubbed away the chalky film which covered the brass nameplate.
"Good Lord!" exclaimed Harrison. "It's young Catfield! How the devil did he get up here?"
"I can guess," said Mrs. Bradley.
Within the dilapidated house of Merlin's Furlong disagreeable Uncle Aumbrey is busy altering his will, this time to benefit his poet nephew Richmond, thereby leaving three other relatives nowt. Before the ink has been allowed to dry, however, lawyer (and passed-over heir) Godfrey Aumbrey is knocked unconscious and the documents are taken from him. Meanwhile, three young men--Harrison, Waite, and Piper--decide to answer a strange advertisement requesting a warlock's help in manipulating a voodoo doll. The address leads them to an ex-college professor, Havers, a strange old man with a reputation for witchcraft. From there, the trio is assigned to dispose of the doll sent to Havers and to retrieve a religious diptych taken from him by a rival collector--a certain Mr. Aumbrey.
With college spirit the men set out to Merlin's Furlong, but lose their way and arrive at Merlin's Castle by mistake. This misstep becomes known only when they're inside the latter, and they realize that the building is in fact the country residence of Professor Havers. A search of the nearby Furlong house yields up not a religious icon but instead a dead body, specifically that of the bludgeoned Mr. Aumbrey. A lengthy explanation of their movements leading to the discovery does not sit well with the local police, and when the body of Professor Havers is found (also bludgeoned) in the Castle's carriage-house, only the aunt of "Bradley of Angelus" can offer hope of salvation.
Mrs. Beatrice Bradley indeed rallies to their defense, though she plans to carry out an objective investigation that may not completely exonerate the three house-breakers. In time she discovers a disinterred casket, a secret room filled with artifacts, a cupboard containing dolls' heads (complete with red paint around the neck), a group of midnight fire-walkers, a stuffed cat and a live monkey. The psychiatrist sleuth is quite comfortable among such macabre elements, and eventually explains all to the interested parties--and the reader--by unmasking a particularly vengeful murderer.
Whenever Gladys Mitchell and her series detective Mrs. Bradley tackle a case with the trappings of witchcraft--be it in an earlier book like Tom Brown's Body or a later one like Nest of Vipers--the results are always memorable and quite often inspired. The old psychoanalyst definitely carries a witch-like aspect, with her yellow skin and bony, claw hands, piercing black eyes and eldritch cackle upsetting more than one acquaintance; she even boasts an ancestor who was burned for being a witch. Mitchell had a lifelong interest in the occult, as well as in the supernatural and druidic ritual, and incorporated these elements into many of her rational detective novels. It is much to the author's credit that such pairings of fantasy and reality (I use both words with latitude) work as well as they do in her books. A few--e.g., When Last I Died, centered around a haunted house, or Tom Brown's Body, in which Mrs. Bradley communes with local witch Lecky Harries--are to be counted among Mitchell's very best stories, and several others, including The Devil at Saxon Wall, A Hearse on May-day, and Wraiths and Changelings, integrate these colorful subjects into the plot to very enjoyable effect.
Merlin's Furlong unfolds in a singular way: after spending the first chapter with the Aumbreys, where the uncle's will and testament is at the front, the focus shifts in Chapter Two to the three adventuresome young men and their encounter with Professor Havers. We stay with this trio until they nearly literally stumble upon Uncle Aumbrey, lying dead in the house in which they are trespassing. It's a somewhat unconventional, but quite successful, narrative structure, and Miss Mitchell (as is usual) continues by filling the story with so many incidents and oddities that the reader forgets that the primary suspects have been offstage for several chapters; there is enough to figure out without the meddlesome concern of spending time with the suspects. It's a sleight-of-hand that the author knows well and practices expertly, stuffing plots with so much clue-worthy impedimenta that often the getting there is more fun than arriving at the solution. Still, when it comes, Merlin's solution--in a rare gathering-of-suspects "J'accuse" finale--is quite satisfying, and Mrs. Bradley manages to tie up all the loose ends accountably, if not altogether logically (another Mitchell trait). Merlin's Furlong, while not a key title in the Mrs. Bradley canon, is nonetheless very entertaining and serves to illustrate once more that Gladys Mitchell can spin a tale that's quite unlike any other in mystery fiction.