SKELETON ISLAND (1967)
1967 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1985 Severn House.
[Mr. Eastleigh:] "The search has been a most exhaustive one, and I understand that it will be abandoned very soon, so far as the quarries are concerned, and the coast watched for a washed-up body."
"Oh, well, in a few days' time, our part in all this will be over. I shan't be sorry to get back to normal, although I've rather enjoyed the school," said Laura, later, to her employer. "What are you going to do with yourself during the time that's left? I won't see much of you, I'm afraid. You know what the end of term is like."
"I shall find ways and means of occupying my time," said Dame Beatrice.
She spoke more truly than, at the time of utterance, she knew.
To avid bird-watcher Howard Spaulding, the rocky and windswept landscape of Skeleton Island suggests an ideal vacation retreat. To his young second wife Fiona and his moody son Colin, the desolate island most resembles a prison. Nonetheless, Howard rents a remodeled lighthouse and the skeptical family moves in. Nineteen-year old Colin nurses a crush for his youthful stepmother, a condition that is magnified under the close living conditions. Howard Spaulding soon discovers that his is not the only group on the island: a boys' school has taken over an off-season hotel, and a real prison sits nearby. An ominous mix, surely, but Howard is more preoccupied with losing his promised garage space to one of the teachers.
Laura Gavin, secretary for Dame Beatrice, has signed on to act as the displaced school's matron. She befriends Colin, who is persuaded to take a post teaching Russian to the boys, and is subjected to Howard's lectures on several native birds. Laura also learns that a staff member named Ferrars is rumored to be romancing many women, among them the lonely lighthouse maiden Fiona Spaulding. But on one foggy day Ferrars goes missing--and, obeying the rule of threes, a schoolboy and Howard Spaulding disappear soon thereafter. When news of an escaped convict reaches the islanders, everyone fears the worst.
Events, however, take a stranger turn. The convict turns up in Ferrars' clothes, and Laura's hunch to chase the missing boy farther up the coast pays off in an unexpected way. When Ferrars' naked body is discovered in a locked room at the lighthouse, Dame Beatrice descends upon Skeleton Island to investigate. After observing the strange behavior of everyone involved, the psychiatrist takes steps to trap the guilty party and bring the schoolteacher's murderer to book.
To me, Skeleton Island is most notable for its near-perfect middle-period mediocrity when viewed within the scope of the Mrs. Bradley series. This entry combines an eminently readable story with illogical, instantly forgotten character actions and plot details. For every enjoyable aspect--and there are several, from Gladys Mitchell's descriptions of the presque-island to the kitchen drama enacted by the dysfunctional Spauldings--there is a story turn or plot revelation that disappoints. The movements attributed to patriarch Howard in the book's second half are random and nonsensical; the murderer's identity is arbitrary; the business of individuals and groups discovering, obscuring, or hiding the dead body would be farcically high-spirited if it wasn't reported in such a matter-of-fact tone. And yet...
And yet Skeleton Island is saved by the author's ability to tell her stories with conviction, utilising crisp pacing and vivid, enjoyable prose to keep her readers on the path even when plot logic strays far afield. The best analogy I can muster might be the viewing of a typical episode of a dependable television mystery program. The formula is followed with comfortable familiarity: a crime is committed, the detective sets to work, accusing fingers are pointed, quick explanations are given, and the end credits roll. The episode satisfies--it was a pleasant enough piece of entertainment--but it hardly stays with one. And it can hardly be called great.
That there are far better Mitchell novels to contrast against this one places Skeleton Island into the category of also-ran. But it's a good example of the quality of Mitchell's output from 1960 on: sturdy, procedural, and familiar, and, more often than not, bound to disappoint. What surprises me with these later tales is that they nearly always entertain, so much so that I can overlook their averageness and am even happy to revisit them. Why? Because although the outcome may lack brilliance, the company kept along the way is thoroughly agreeable.