NEST OF VIPERS (1979)
1979 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1981 Magna Print; 2005 Chivers Press.
All my tenants turned out to be writers of one sort or another.
"I thought you'd feel more at home with them, being a writer yourself," said Niobe. "Birds of a feather, and all that, you know."
"Birds of a feather can peck one another to death."
Chelion Piper has been arrested under suspicion of murder. One of the tenants of his country apartment house, an unsocial and secretive old lady named Miss Minnie, was found by Chelion and two other men in her bungalow, dead in her bed. Suicide or accidental death is quickly ruled out: the woman was drowned in sea water (her clothes and bed were wet), and her face was bludgeoned in. The police discover that Piper inherited the house from a relative of Miss Minnie's, and she was there to find evidence of a new will that would give her claim to the property. Motive thus provided, the police begins building the case against Chelion.
The accused man writes to Dame Beatrice, and she agrees to pay a visit to Weston Pipers on his behalf (while there, she uses the alias of "Mrs. Farintosh" to allay suspicion; see Watson's Choice). At the house, Dame B. meets Niobe, the quick-to-tears caretaker who was once engaged to Chelion, and the remaining tenants, all of whom are writers--true crime reporters, advice columnists, romance writers and spy novelists among them. The detective soon learns about a wave of sordid anonymous letters addressed to several individuals, as well as a prank that changed the printing of stationery bearing the estate's name from "Weston Pipers" to "Nest of Vipers."
The trail of Miss Minnie leads Dame Beatrice and Laura to a run-down junk shop in the village, where they find a duplicitous shop owner, a set of steel fire-irons (which may include a murder weapon), and a cryptic picture with occult origins. When the shopkeeper is found dead in his office, stabbed in the chest, an investigation of the junk shop reveals a private room containing black curtains and carpet, satanic symbols traced upon the floor, and a sacrificial altar. Dame Beatrice must now decide just how many murderers she's looking for: one, two or an entire coven.
Easily one of the best books published in the last decade of Miss Mitchell's life, Nest of Vipers is a bit of return to form, and reminds me of her solid storytelling throughout the 1950s. The book's pacing is excellent, and bizarre plot elements crop up continuously, much to the reader's delight: Why was Miss Minnie found indoors if she was drowned in sea water? Who's behind the poison pen letters? Who brought the milk bottles inside after the shopkeeper's demise? The plot, though falling prey to the occasional logic pitfalls that Miss Mitchell routinely builds into her works, is lucid and linear, and the narrative begins swiftly with Chelion's first-person account of his predicament, related to Dame Beatrice in a letter. (Miss Mitchell's narrative gambits are often very entertaining when she allows her characters to tell part of the story in their own words: see "Dan's letters to Em" in The Devil's Elbow, Noel Wells's daft narration in The Saltmarsh Murders, or Bella Foxley's diary entries in When Last I Died.) The pack of writers staying at Weston Pipers proves an intriguing mix of personalities, and perhaps best of all, Laura Gavin's presence is well-balanced against that of her employer, with Laura offering her able-bodied support but never taking over the story.
Gladys Mitchell's glorious prose keeps this book light and lively, as when Laura asks whether she can add a suspect's name to the "list of Murderers We Have Known." Even better, and a piece of trivia to place alongside that of chauffeur George's proposed surname, is a brief scene where Dame Beatrice and Laura go to the movies (!) -- they view a film titled The Ghouls of Dead Man's Creek. Dame Beatrice quickly gets into the movie-going spirit: "At the interval I shall require a choc-ice and a bottle of some obnoxious liquid which I shall imbibe through a straw." Miss Mitchell's sense of humor--whether spirited or deadpan--provides much of the great pleasure I find when I read her books, and this humor encourages revisiting and rereading her titles as well.
I also want to mention a subject that I haven't really addressed elsewhere: specifically, the dust jacket art of Mitchell books. This title has one of the most striking cover images, in my opinion, and one that illustrates perfectly the storyline of the book: a group of thirteen people standing in a circle, looking out from the lawn of an estate, the manor house (ostensibly Weston Pipers) illuminated by the full moon behind them. The circular group also forms a collective, and even a makeshift nest; the circle's center is the brightest and lightest area of lawn, and one's eye is drawn to it. Also, the circle is echoed thematically by the occult drawn outlines found on the floor of the private altar room within the junk shop. The color scheme--muted greens and blues and grays, as can be found at a moonlit nightfall--is striking, and definitely creates an eerie atmosphere. Other eye-catching dust jacket compositions can be found on the covers for The Echoing Strangers, The Man Who Grew Tomatoes, Death and the Maiden, My Bones Will Keep, No Winding Sheet, and the Malcolm Torrie titles Churchyard Salad and Bismarck Herrings.