MINGLED WITH VENOM (1978)
1978 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1981 Magna Large Print; 1982 Heron Press.
The next witness was the superintendent. "I was called in by Dr. Mace to this house to investigate a case of sudden and unexpected death. The doctor suspected the deceased had taken poison. I sent specimens such as I need not name to be analysed. The poison was diagnosed as aconitine, known to be deadly. I set about finding out where the pot of pickle had come from and learned it had been prepared in this very kitchen."
He was interrupted by a stricken cry of "I never! I swear and declare I never done it!" from Mrs. Plack, who was rebuked by the coroner, comforted by the kitchenmaid and spent the next few minutes quietly sobbing.
The superintendent was invited to resume his story.
Nearing 70, matriarch Romula Leydon finds much at fault with her varied and colorfully-named family. An illegitimacy here, a touring stage actor there, and the lady finds herself disapproving of her flesh and blood kin more often than not. Romula has made a steady habit of bankrolling people in whom she sees potential: efficient secretary Fiona Bute was the first outsider to benefit from her employer's whims. Then came kitchenmaid Ruby Pabbay, an opinionated young lass who enjoys singing while doing the washing up; Mrs. Leydon thought the girl's voice had merit, and Ruby has been treated to singing lessons and trips to London ever since. Now milady's restless eye has fallen on her (adopted) grandson Gamaliel, a handsome black teen with aspirations to become a world-class boxer. Such attention given to this comparative outsider does not sit well with several of the family members who are still living in the shadow of the rich relative's scorn.
Gamaliel also arrests the attention of Dame Beatrice Bradley, who is staying at a nearby hotel. It is from the future boxer that the Home Office consultant learns of an outbreak of shoving--one targeting Romula Leydon, a second directed at her daughter Diana--that, if successful, would have dispatched its recipients over a cliff. This is soon eclipsed by a fateful Sunday luncheon wherein a pot of horseradish sauce mixed with the root of wolfsbane (or monkshood) makes its way to the table. The only casualty is Romula Leydon, most likely by design: it was known that only the matriarch ever used the sauce, and that a pot was made fresh each week by her faithful cook, Mrs. Plack. A recently dismissed kitchenmaid is arrested, charged with substituting the lethal sauce as a means of revenge. But no one--Dame Beatrice and the not-quite-grieving family included--can believe the simple girl capable of such an act. So Dame B. sets out to clear a kitchenmaid's name and, in so doing, shake the murderer from the family tree.
It is a privilege to watch as Gladys Mitchell (who wrote this book in her mid-70s) deftly juggles more than a dozen characters while keeping an eye on the mystery plot. The broad but striking sketches of each character trailing his or her social baggage--think extramarital affair, or money troubles, or class limitation--reminds one of Ivy Compton Burnett, and it is admirable that Miss Mitchell can unfold so many subplots simultaneously, and to smart effect. Mingled with Venom is not a great book, but it is a busy one, and my chief lament is that so much time is spent on the family's social dramas that the murder mystery is quite inconsequential, almost an afterthought.
When the murder does occur--off-stage and smack-dab at the book's halfway mark (p. 92)--its inevitability is nicely offset by the capricious murder method, i.e., a poisoned pot of horseradish sauce. Venom is also notable for its surplus of fanciful character names: such literary/historical monikers as Garnet, Gamaliel, Parsifal, Quentin and Millament (twins), Bluebell, Rupert, and Romula lie herein. Even the sensibly christened Ruby Pabbay decides to switch to the stage name of Antonia Aysgarth by tale's end. (Miss Mitchell has always named her characters well; her choices become generally more colorful--and obscure--from the 1960s on.) Indeed, a rather opaque clue to motive hinges upon a name, so it's all relevant, and even when it's not, it's still more entertaining than naming your cast Bob and Jane. The fact that the villain is from the family is another cause for thanks. Too often crimes in Mitchell's books of the late '60s and '70s are revealed to have been committed by periphery characters or, worse, by unnamed thugs from a smugglers' syndicate or similar. Though the mystery in Mingled with Venom is secondary and slight, it is nonetheless quite agreeable. Just stay away from the cliff path.