SAY IT WITH FLOWERS (1960)
1960 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1960 London House (U.S.).
Her maid had brought a note to the breakfast table. It was from Phlox Carmichael requesting the pleasure of a further interview and promising to present himself at the Stone House at eleven o'clock that same morning in the hope of finding Dame Beatrice at liberty.
"About these hallucinations of mine," he said. Dame Beatrice, seated by the hearth and looking, in her jade-green dress, remarkably like a Chinese carving, waited in silence. "I don't have them. I -- that is -- it seemed a good way of getting to know you."
Dame Beatrice, whose nearest relatives, including her late husbands Mr. Lestrange and Mr. Bradley, would have assured Phlox that to get to know her was outside ordinary human scope, said mildly:
The wheels of fate begin to turn the moment Dick Dickon, a humble farmer of Wandles Parva, unearths some Roman artifacts on his land. The handful of silver coins, terracotta mask, and black jar he discovers while digging a badgers’ sett sparks the interest of the local vicar, who soon proposes advanced digging for more clues to the existence of a Roman road. Archaeological fever strikes, and soon the spirited boys of Pelican House Academy and the more business-like girls from a neighboring convent school are exploring the ground. When nothing more is unearthed during these official digs, two boys take it upon themselves to have another go. Their exciting find of a human skeleton piques the interest of the village, and ‘local squire’ Dame Beatrice, upon examining the bones, comes to the conclusion that the remains are not ancient Roman but alarmingly British and contemporary.
In town for a visit are Phlox and Marigold Carmichael, an eccentric pair of amateur archaeologists who seem to take equal interest in the skeleton and Dame Beatrice herself. While the elderly psychoanalyst ponders the Carmichaels’ relationship—for they do not appear to be husband and wife—news arrives that traveler Hilary Beads has gone missing. She was last seen alive leaving the vicarage of Wandles Parva where she stayed. Some curious behavior around the town’s druidic Stone of Sacrifice leads to a search of the derelict Manor House nearby—and the discovery of a body in the high tower. Dame Beatrice believes the disappearance of a Thames boatman might also be related, and she starts to do a little digging of her own, uncovering truths that a murderer is working very hard to keep buried.
The 1960s finds author Gladys Mitchell as prolific as ever, and her output in this decade offers a few subtle changes. The willingness to experiment with narrative tone and structure shown in her works of the ‘30s gives way to a mostly uniform procedural tale, where the telling becomes as staid and subdued as her protagonist who, upon receipt of her O.B.E. title in 1956, has shed many of her more colorful and unpredictable attributes. Still, what’s left — both in the character of Dame Beatrice Bradley and in Mitchell’s abilities as storyteller — is often highly entertaining. And so it is with Say It with Flowers. I had expected the worst, as Flowers has a reputation as one of GM’s misfire titles, but found it quite engaging although the plot never quite convinces (even making the usual allowance to indulgently suspend disbelief). In regards to tone, sense of humour, characterization and general enjoyment level, this book was quite close in spirit to winning entries like the previous year’s The Man Who Grew Tomatoes or 1962’s My Bones Will Keep.
It is notable that the plot of Say It with Flowers offers up to reader and detective only one main suspect among its cast. Later titles like Three Quick and Five Dead and Fault in the Structure also use this streamlined approach to the Whodunit; and it is well worth noting that (in my opinion) these stories are just as successful and compelling as many of the books with a larger gallery of suspects. One reason lies in the fact that the villain’s identity in Gladys Mitchell’s later plots becomes increasingly arbitrary and unforeseeable, and in a way the author strengthens this tale by placing focus in one direction only. The result is a more streamlined story with an inevitable feel. And although Flowers’ Phlox Carmichael attracts Dame Beatrice’s basilisk gaze very early on, the motives for his mad actions are nicely held until the final chapters. As usual, a number of the details don’t hold up under close scrutiny or common sense — for how, to give just one example, does an uncontained skeleton get successfully transplanted from one location to another? Since the bones would be loose and disconnected, the second burial would amount to a pile, not a tableau. But if the reader can manage to overlook those inconsistencies and suspend disbelief just a bit more, then an energetic little entry like Say It with Flowers might grow on you.