MY BONES WILL KEEP (1962)
1962 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1962 British Book Centre; 2014 Vintage Press.
"I've been on Mrs. Gavin's trail ever since the night I rowed her across the loch, hoping she'd consent to speak up for me when the time came. But women are flint-hearted, even when a man's life may be at stake."
"But what makes you believe that Mrs. Gavin can speak for you, as you express it? Mrs. Gavin, who is my personal private secretary as well as my young friend, has told me of her adventures, and nothing in her account, which, I am sure, has been of the fullest, gives me any reason to think that she can help you. What causes you to think she can?"
"Because," said the young man, "Cu Dubh was murdered just as I was tying up the boat to set Mrs. Gavin ashore, so, if there is any trouble, it will be up to her to clear me."
"Interesting," said Dame Beatrice. "Pray go on."
Laura's trip to her native Scotland--accompanying Dame Beatrice for a conference, the secretary finds the venture more pleasure than business--begins ominously when she witnesses at Inverness a man thrown into the path of a speeding lorry. A little later, Laura is caught in heavy rain, which cuts short her exploration of Highland scenery. Fate deposits her on the strange island of Tannasgan--Island of Ghosts--and she shares dinner with an even stranger companion, a red-bearded Scot who calls himself Malcom Donalbain Macbeth. Sent to a bedroom after her host requests her company for a week, Laura's increasing unease with the situation causes her to flee. Making her way to the rowboat that carried her to the island, she is surprised to find another stranger hiding in the boathouse. The pair escape to shore as the sound of bagpipes builds from a dirge to a frenzied reel, then violently, abruptly cuts off.
Laura's nighttime adventures interest Dame Beatrice strangely, as they learn that the Laird of Tannasgan was stabbed with a skian-dhu, his body chained to a rum barrel and placed in the loch. A young journalist named Grant--the man in the boathouse--dogs the ladies during their investigation, pleading with Laura to offer him an alibi for the murder. It becomes clear that Laura's host was not the cruel Laird known to many as Cu Dubh--Black Dog--but then what part did he play in the proceedings? The trail leads to a menagerie of carvings on a neighboring island, but the arresting figures of the werewolf, gryphon, and basilisk there remain silent with their secrets.
An enjoyable mid-period entry in the series, My Bones Will Keep gives its author another opportunity to explore the Scots landscape, its traditions, and its Gaelic language. Though the murder victim is offscreen and unknowable, and though much of the story is propelled along by countless conversational interviews -- two points, in my opinion, that serve to weaken some of Gladys Mitchell's later books -- this tale is quite satisfying. It's a rare Mitchell title that gets better as it nears its end, and is also notable for its admirable display of misdirection and an excellently unique motive -- sensible but surprising -- that compares favorably to the celebrated motive found in Death at the Opera.
The pacing and plotting of My Bones Will Keep is also reminiscent of those qualities found in The Man Who Grew Tomatoes of a few years prior. Both books use neighboring Scotland to smart effect (Bones' plot revolves around a loch-based island, Tomatoes' victims wade through salmon streams) and both are stamped with Miss Mitchell's assured storytelling skills. Her love of country -- meaning both the United Kingdom and the rural lands -- is on display as usual. Nice moments of humor crop up as well, such as Dame B.'s account of a fellow conference attendant:
"Ah, yes. The distinguished Italian alienist who thinks that apes are descended from men and that, in time, there will be no more human beings but a sort of robot world of intelligent but pitiless primates with neither religion nor morals," said Dame Beatrice, amused. Her listener's reply: "That's the laddie. Speaks very good English, too..."
Note to the Laura-weary: Dame Beatrice's indefatigable secretary is at center stage of this narrative. The book does not suffer overmuch from her presence though, and Dame B. soon takes control of the investigation, leaving Laura to do the heavy lifting, as it should be.