THE MYSTERY OF A BUTCHER'S SHOP (1929)
1929 Victor Gollancz. 1930 Dial Press (U.S.). Reprinted 1950 Penguin paperback; 1990 Sphere paperback; 2006 Rue Morgue Press; 2010 and 2017 Vintage UK.
"What is it?"
Mrs. Bradley led her into the dining-room and pushed her into a chair.
"To the best of my knowledge and belief," she said, "it is Rupert Sethleigh's skull."
"But how did it get there?" Felicity pulled off her hat and pushed a hand through her hair.
"That is something which I would give a good deal to know for certain," said Mrs. Bradley. "I suppose it would be too much to ask you to take another party of children tomorrow and look to see if it's still there? I would go myself, but I am particularly anxious not to appear in this little comedy. My part shall be that of stage manager... Go up and wash, child, and stay here to dinner."
The last thing Felicity saw as she turned to go up the stairs was Mrs. Bradley's grin. She began to understand how Alice in Wonderland must have felt upon first beholding the Cheshire Cat.
Rupert Sethleigh's solicitor arrives in the village of Wandles Parva at the request of his client only to learn that Sethleigh has disappeared. Rupert's cousin, Jim Redsey, insists that Rupert has left for America, but this theory is accepted by neither the solicitor nor Mrs. Bryce Harringay, a formidable woman who has set up indefinite residence in nephew Sethleigh's house. Not quite coincidentally, a dismembered human body is discovered in the Bossbury market butcher's shop, the joints hanging from meat hooks. Equally unsettling to Mrs. Bryce Harringay is the fact that a peculiar yellow-skinned elderly lady has moved into the Stone House nearby.
Events happen quickly in Wandles Parva: the Bishop of Culminster discovers a skull while out for an invigorating seaside swim; a druidic Stone of Sacrifice in the woods seems to be at the center of a lot of activity, and the rock carries a new bloodstain; a freshly dug grave contains only a suitcase holding a stuffed trout and the note, "A present from Grimsby." Meanwhile, the well-travelled skull disappears from an art studio and turns up in an exhibit at the Culminster museum, and Mrs. Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, the new tenant at the Stone House, narrowly avoids an arrow to the head, shot by a figure clad in full Robin Hood costume!
The police consider Jim Redsey their primary suspect. He was the last person to be seen with Sethleigh as the duo walked into the woods, arguing. Sethleigh had summoned his solicitor and planned to exclude Redsey from his will (Jim claims to have had no knowledge of his cousin's plans). And Redsey acted quite strangely prior to the body's discovery, keeping people from walking through the woods and showing signs of extreme nervousness. But Mrs. Bradley believes the uncreative man would never consider depositing a body in a butcher's shop or playing hide-the-thimble with a skull. Thus, the old psycho-analyst starts looking elsewhere for clues to arrive at the Whole Picture.
In this, her second mystery to feature Mrs. Bradley, Gladys Mitchell achieves a near-perfect balance of narrative, plot, and character elements to create one of her very best stories. The writing is solid, funny and vibrant, the plotting fast-paced and complex (yet comprehensible), and the assembled cast of characters is as unique and memorably drawn as Mrs. Croc herself. As she will continue to do in many subsequent books, Miss Mitchell populates The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop with a couple likeable young people; here we have Aubrey Harringay, the energetic teenage son of the matron, and Felicity Broome, the daughter of the absent-minded village vicar. Both befriend Mrs. Bradley and aid her in the fields of clue-gathering and crime re-enactments.
Perhaps most rewarding for the reader is Miss Mitchell's and Mrs. Bradley's painstaking care to untangle the knotted plot, with its many incidents and coincidences, multiple motives and myriad alibis. We are provided with a time table, hand-drawn diagrams and especially the findings of Mrs. Bradley's notebook (chapter 23). A few times the detective theorizes about each suspect in turn, building up and then tearing down a case against each one (e.g., chapter 19); such exercises are tremendous fun and keep the book's puzzles on track. And Mrs. Bradley is her wonderfully eccentric early self here, enchanting the younger set and creating unease among the adults. Aubrey reports that the old lady is an excellent billiards player; Jim Redsey tries to stay out of her reach. For a very busy Golden Age whodunit, Gladys Mitchell also adds a surprising amount of humanity and pathos. Consider this observation from Mrs. Bradley upon mentioning that many people had understandable motives for hating the scurrilous Rupert Sethleigh: "That is the worst of a crime like murder. One's sympathies are so often with the murderer. One can see so many reasons why the murdered person was--well, murdered. The chief fault I have to find with most murderers is that they lack a sense of humour."
The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop will never be accused of lacking a sense of humour. Fast, funny, imaginative, colorful and bizarre, this tale is Gladys Mitchell at her very best, brightly illuminating all of her storytelling strengths.
The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop was chosen as a Mitchell Mystery Reading Group title in November 2018! See what readers had to say about the book by visiting these links:
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