NO WINDING-SHEET (1984)
1984 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1989 Thorndike Large Print.
"Mr. Ronsonby has lost two boys," said Dame Beatrice to Laura Gavin.
"From your tone I don't think you mean that two of his own sons have died. It must be to do with the school."
"How perceptive you are! Yes, the two young boys who managed to bamboozle the caretaker into admitting them to the school after hours have disappeared. Mr. Ronsonby wants us to find them."
"Don't the other boys know what they are up to? Boys usually know that sort of thing about one another. Are they truanting?"
"It appears that they bear an unblemished reputation."
"Then they are certain to be villains! There is no such thing as a boy with a genuinely unblemished reputation."
The headmaster of the Sir George Etherege school for boys becomes understandably concerned when one of his senior staff, a geography teacher named Mr. Pythias, does not appear at school following a weekend break. In the days leading up to Christmas vacation, no one at the school or at his boarding house hears from the missing man. The unexplained absence is doubly frustrating as Pythias had collected several hundred pounds from dozens of students and faculty to fund a school trip to Greece, and the money never made it to the bank on that fateful Friday. The headmaster refuses to believe that a staff member could have absconded with the money, but then where has Pythias disappeared to?
A couple mysterious break-ins happen on campus and the groundskeeper spots two figures causing mischief, but they escape apprehension. They seemed to be digging near a large plot in the quad that was used as a rubbish hole when building construction was taking place. Plans of transforming the area into a large lily pond come to an abrupt halt when a man's body is found buried among the debris.
When two boys who may have witnessed one of the break-ins go missing, the inspector requests Dame Beatrice to take up the case. Accompanied by Laura Gavin, the psychiatrist to the Home Office questions co-workers, students, landlord, housemates, bank officials, and even a Southampton art gallery owner until she is able to provide the beleaguered headmaster with answers to the puzzle.
No Winding-Sheet was one of three novels to be published after Gladys Mitchell's death in July of 1983. Never extraordinary but always compelling and readable, this story is solidly paced, plotted and executed. If, as I presume, Miss Mitchell wrote this book within the last couple years of her prolific career, when she was in her early 80s, the discipline and clarity in her life and work are to be celebrated. This tale is told with such efficiency and drive that each chapter moves the reader along effortlessly, hitting all relevant points of interest almost like a well-oiled amusement park ride. If the itinerary is apparent, the mechanics are not.
The backdrop is once again that of a public school, the players largely those of masters and students. The book's first half suffers slightly on two counts: Dame Beatrice is entirely absent, and not even referenced until chapter nine; and the use of the campus rubbish hole as the body's dumping spot is so obvious to even an occasional mystery reader that one wishes the discovery would be made several pages earlier. This is another shining example of a Mitchell book structured as novel rather than mystery. Incident builds upon incident, and the story isn't as dependent upon the interpretation of past clues as it is upon present actions -- of suspects, police and detective. Owing to this, it strikes me that many of Mitchell's books, and especially those written after the 1950s, are largely procedural in form. Often times, information leading to the solution is not presented until after the puzzle has been established. In No Winding-Sheet, for example, there's the schoolboys' disappearance, an event which causes Dame Beatrice to look to their classmates for information. One boy's testimony gives the police a starting point, and from there the mystery is solved (through action rather than deduction). Although this mix of elements may alarm Golden Age detection purists, the gambit works when folded into Miss Mitchell's more assured narratives. The story, even when familiar and a bit predictable, is still enjoyable and quite worthy as a read.