PRINTER'S ERROR (1939)
1939 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 2007 Minnow Press.
Many thanks to Barry Pike.
The ears delivered at Mrs. Saxant's house and the hand left at Lyle's printing works provided the newspapers with a column or two and the police with a good deal of extra work. The police adopted the reasonable theory that the ears and the hand were from the same corpse, and on this opinion they based their investigations.
There's dark doings afoot at the printing house of Saxant and Senss. The small firm has agreed--reluctantly--to publish a notorious anti-semitic tract from well-known author Fortinbras Carn, printing a limited run of 100 copies for private subscribers. Shortly thereafter, anonymous, threatening letters begin to arrive at the Carn house with increasing rapidity, demanding that the author cancel his plans to publish. Mrs. Carn seeks out the advice of a young solicitor, Justus Bassin, and begs him to safeguard a cash-box containing the manuscript proofs. This he agrees to do, but before he can contact his London office, someone bludgeons Mrs. Carn with the metal cash-box and steals the proofs away.
Incidents and coincidences pile up quickly: Fortinbras Carn disappears; a human hand is discovered upon a neighboring publisher's paper-cutting machine; a pair of ears are sent to Mrs. Saxant; an arm turns up in the bottom of a horse trough; and the offices of Saxant and Senss are soon set on fire. All of this criminal activity interests pig-farmer on holiday Carey Lestrange, who has befriended the solicitor. Carey recruits his aunt into the strange business, and psychoanalyst Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley is in her element among the body parts and missing persons. As the trio of sleuths (two amateur, one professional) looks into the mystery, they begin to pick up threads which may lead to the dangerous Nazi party.
Though Printer's Error contains framework references to international political issues (Nazism, secret agentry), this Mrs. Bradley story stays close to its Golden Age detection roots. At heart, it's a whodunit that wobbles a bit whilst trying to sort out the why of it all. This is no new criticism for a Mitchell novel; future efforts like Here Comes a Chopper and Death and the Maiden are similarly filled with many, many actions that are only just satisfactorily explained. If any extra amount of time is spent by the reader in trying to justify or reason out the murderer's many quixotic moves, the plot pieces tumble down like a house of cards. Still, these are pleasurable books all, and I'd rather applaud Gladys Mitchell's unbridled imagination and overlook the inconsistencies than criticize her for being too ambitious for her story's own good.
And there's very much in Printer's Error to celebrate. Several characters from previous adventures appear here: Ferdinand Lestrange checks in; the Ditches and Henri and Celestine Lemaitre are on hand; chauffeur George offers his usual invaluable services; and vicar Noel Wells (narrator of The Saltmarsh Murders and willing decoy in Death at the Opera) pops up to help Mrs. Bradley reason a point out. The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop's Reverend Broome even merits a mention, so with nephew Carey Lestrange, his wife Jenny, and baby son John Willie about, Error becomes quite the family affair. This is one of Miss Mitchell's busier tales, and at times the physical action elements (including gunplay among the bearded set, bodily tackling of suspects, and some well-aimed tomato throws) risk overwhelming the detection within. Better balanced are the light satiric touches with which Miss Mitchell details the social fads of nudism and surrealism. A large part of the book concerns Mrs. Bradley's attempts to flush out a suspect from a nudist colony, and the killer's arrest (or collection) takes place in a bizarre epilogue set among a modern art exhibition. Gladys Mitchell pokes gentle fun at, but never attacks, these extremist social movements. It's interesting to note that the Nazi ideology is accorded a wider berth: while hardly approving of Axis actions or sentiments, Printer's Error does not wrap itself in hearty patriotism. As Miss Mitchell was never an overtly political or politically-driven writer, her vague approach makes a fair deal of Senss -- er, sense.
This book contains two additional reasons for celebration: one is a Mitchell constant, the other is more rare, though always welcomed. The rarity in Printer's Error occurs in Chapter 12, when Mrs. Bradley offers newcomer Noel Wells a concise synopsis of the many tangled events that have happened thus far. For a Mitchell reader, such an encapsulation of plot serves as a welcome oasis of comprehension; enjoy the shade and drink deep. (Of similar usefulness are the entries in Mrs. Bradley's notebook, an end-of-mystery cheat sheet only found in a half-dozen books.) The Mitchell constant refers to her uniformly excellent prose, of a story-telling quality that rarely dips. On Printer's Error's first page we find this descriptive line: "Children and lovers haunted the path by the brook, each to some extent impeding the other in the prosecution of what appeared to both to be necessary and desirable ends." Now, that's not a soaring Shakespearean line, but it's very good and very charming. It is succinct, visual, humorous, and well-constructed. What's more, the sentence doesn't fight against the flow of the paragraph to which it belongs; the turn of phrase complements the paragraph, which in turn fits securely among the equally smart prose of the book. I'm trying to say, not very succinctly, that Gladys Mitchell is a fine writer, and her relative mystery-author obscurity is not only undeserved but indefensible.