THE SEVEN STONES MYSTERY (1949)

1949 Evans Brothers Limited.

The accident happened whilst Pam was dressing after her shower, and no one but the gymnasium team saw it. A girl named Sheila Winters, the poorest member, and a big, rather heavily built girl, was commanded by Miss Mattocks to climb the rope and do a reverse turn.

Sheila, who was good at some of the work, particularly at vaulting over the box, disliked the particular exercise she had to practice, but went up gamely enough. Just as she reversed, having slapped the ring at the top, the dreadful occurrence took place. The rope parted about a foot from the ring, and down came the girl, head first.

Miss Mattocks, quick as lightning, darted forward, was knocked flat, but managed to break the girl's fall.

Plucky Pam Stewart, now a nearly adult Sixth-Form student, receives a shock when she learns by letter that her beloved Cairnstones school has closed temporarily due to a building fire. The school has decided to place its students at other locations in the interim, and while Pam is disappointed that she will not be reuniting with her many close friends, she is cautiously optimistic about making new acquaintances at Mannerings, the country-set girls school to which she is assigned. Immediately, Pam befriends Carol Adams, who is her age, and receives a spirited 13-year old "hooker" named Glenda Welland, who acts as Pam's assistant. The young Glenda explains:

"It means I scout for you so that you get the hot water for your bath because I get there first and bag the bathroom; and if you want toast, I line up at Matron's door for the right of way to the kitchen fire and the best toasting fork; and if you bathe in the summer I fag your towel to the warming room and dry it if you want to use it next day before it gets washed…"

Except for an occasional encounter with an envious fellow athlete named Joan Haslett, who has decided to dislike the new arrival, Pam's life at Mannerings is satisfactory, if not especially exciting. That changes when two ominous events occur: some gymnasium equipment is sabotaged, and a cut at the top of a climbing rope results in a fall that hospitalizes both a student and the games mistress whose quick reflexes save the falling girl from greater harm; and a wave of thefts at the school reaches a climax when a valuable celebratory cup lined with jewels – the seven stones of the title – goes missing.

Despite the loss of the important and irreplaceable cup, the headmistress Miss Price does not wish to contact the police. Instead, on another staff member's suggestion, she hires a private detective – a retired policewoman named Smith who decides to investigate under the questionable disguise of a replacement games mistress named Mrs. Kumquat. But Pam is afraid that the woman may do more harm than good, and with Carol and her capable hooker Glenda helping, Pam mounts an investigation of her own to find the thief and the saboteur.

The Seven Stones Mystery is another solid entry in Mitchell's adventure stories for girls. While the plotting is certainly less complex than those found in her detective stories for adults, the pacing keeps the reader engaged, and there are a few scenes of danger (such as stalking around outside at night to track a criminal who is unafraid to lash out if confronted) that raise the stakes for our intrepid heroine. The details of the machinations involved in maintaining a girls school in the 1940s are very interesting from a historical (and perhaps anthropological) context. It's also admirable that several characters, from staff members to students, are given briefly sketched but specific personalities through their individual traits and moral values. While life at Mannerings as the author presents it still feels idealized and scrubbed up, it also carries enough color and variety to make Pam's efforts to win her games – both as a hockey centre-forward and as an amateur detective – something that the reader can invest in as well.

Mitchell dedicates this story to four girls who formed "the Brace Cup team of 1948, with love", and it is pleasing to know that, as an occasional games mistress herself, the prolific author was also an inspiring coach and teacher for the students she worked with. Maintaining this website, sometimes I hear from the children of past pupils of Gladys Mitchell, and invariably they confide that their mothers spoke of their instructor fondly, remembering that she would read ghost stories to the class or spiritedly coach team members in swimming and gymnastics. These interests are woven throughout Mitchell's writing, and her stories featuring Pam Stewart and her companions gave the author an opportunity to create fictional adventures for, and possibly about, the young students she mentored over the years.

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© 2019 by Jason Half