SLEUTH'S ALCHEMY: Cases of Mrs. Bradley and Others (2005)
All of Gladys Mitchell's London Evening Standard short stories have been collected in Sleuth's Alchemy: Cases of Mrs. Bradley and Others, edited by Nicholas Fuller, Crippen & Landru Press, 2005.
Stories with additional publication histories are noted here.
Below I provide brief quotes, summaries and reviews of notable stories in the collection:
The Case of the Hundred Cats (1938) - 3 stars
1938, in Fifty Famous Detectives of Fiction, Odhams Press Ltd. Reprinted 1947, in Ladies in Crime.
"Well, any developments, Albert?" asked Mrs. Bradley. ..."Not even a light in the basement?" The constable looked puzzled.
"Yes, there was a light in the basement. I never thought anything of it. There wasn't no noise," he observed.
"Oh, wasn't there?" said Mrs. Bradley briskly. "When your officer comes along, you'd better tell him to go down and dig for the body."
Summary: Mrs. Bradley's expert opinion is requested to determine whether a woman is certifiably sane. There are some points against this theory--for one, the woman and her aunt keep all kinds of cats within their house, leading to nasty scratches upon their skin. A letter, a banker, the scent of clove and a mark upon a finger make Mrs. Bradley conclude that murder is imminent.
Review: Gladys Mitchell's forays into short story writing offer mixed results: due to space limitations, the author concentrates on plot and usually ignores development of her characters. But memorable, eccentric characters are one of the best qualities of Miss Mitchell's novels, whereas her plots are always ambitious but often incongruous or confusing when examined closely. Thus, the short stories are necessarily plot-driven affairs, and suffer a little for entertainment because of this. Still, they're worth checking out.
"The Case of the Hundred Cats" is notable for Mrs. Bradley's display of omniscience, never more acute than in this story. She doesn't even interview the woman herself; the psychiatrist makes all her deductions through the facts at hand and immediately knows the score. Had Mrs. Croc been this all-knowing throughout the novels, she would have been quite an insufferable character. But, as the short story needs to tell its tale in a fraction of a novel's length, perhaps Miss Mitchell felt her detective's super-wisdom was the most expedient means to the story's end.
Daisy Bell (1940) – 4 stars
1940, in Detective Short Stories of Today. Reprinted 1975, in Crime on Her Mind; 1990, in Oxford Book of Detective Stories, Oxford University Press; 2017 May/June issue, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (U.S.).
[Mrs. Bradley:] "Is it not strange and interesting to consider all the motives for murder and attempted murder that come to men's minds? To women's minds, too, of course. The greater includes the less."
She cackled harshly. George who (although he would have found it difficult to account for his opinion) had always conceived her to be an ardent feminist, looked at the road ahead, and did not relax his expression of dignified aloofness.
Prevented, by the fact that he was driving, from poking him in the ribs (her natural reaction to an attitude such as the one he was displaying), Mrs. Bradley grinned tigerishly, and the car crawled on up the worst and steepest part of the gradient.
Summary: Mrs. Bradley and chauffeur George are navigating the dangerously winding roads of the moorlands, pathways surrounded by the rocky hill face on one side and a sheer drop to the sea on the other. Stopped at a village church to visit the grave of an ancestress of Mrs. B.'s who "had enjoyed a reputation as a witch," the travelers encounter a young woman who rides a tandem bicycle by herself. They are destined to meet again: Mrs. Bradley discovers the woman lying unconscious with her mangled bike near a brick wall at the foot of a hill. Several peculiarities present themselves, not least of which is a set of tracks leading over the cliff edge and an ominous red stain on the white rock below.
Review: My first reading of "Daisy Bell" almost 15 years ago found much at fault with a story where murderer and victim remained unknowable abstractions. While this distancing is still a liability, the pleasure here is found in the enjoyable characterization of Mrs. Bradley at the story's center, confiding in her trusty (and proudly middle-class) chauffeur and mechanic, George. The fact that the puzzle pieces don't quite fit together in a logical pattern is also a Mitchell hallmark, but the brief tale has such a lively, dark-humored tone that it remains the best short story appearance of the author's formidable detective.
Strangers' Hall (1950) – 4 stars
Reprinted 1950 The Evening Standard Detective Book, Gollancz.
She was at home. She was up. She would come. Much restored, I ventured into the cellar again and took another look at the horror which still lay, dreadfully dead, among my heaped and dirty rushes.
Summary: In the Hampshire village of Itchen Market, a man discovers a dead body in his cellar, buried in a pile of rushes. As his house is a historical tourist attraction, several strangers passed through the rooms the previous day, and they all may be potential suspects. The concerned man calls in Mrs. Bradley, who quickly solves the puzzle.
Review: True to its title, Miss Mitchell doesn't bother with familiarities such as naming the narrator, the victim or the murderer. This is a fun, improbable story--a description that fits the great majority of Mitchell's books. Also in keeping, the details are thoroughly English: rushes on the stone floor, an auto stranded in a water-splash, a spanner-like blackjack as a weapon. Mrs. Bradley arrives on the story's fifth page and is ready with the solution by page seven--quick work indeed.
A Light on Murder (1950) – 3 stars
Reprinted 1950 The Evening Standard Detective Book, Gollancz; in 1976 The Gourmet Crook Book, Everest Books UK.
The body had been there for five days, and the men in the lighthouse could not get to it...they had no doubt of the identity of the corpse. They who had been four were now three.
Summary: One member of a lighthouse crew is dead, stabbed in the back with a knife and his body tossed from the lamp-room into the sea. Mrs. Bradley interrogates the remaining trio of workers, and announces the murderer's identity to a grateful Inspector.
Review: This story's great location (an isolated lighthouse) and premise (only three possible suspects) are dulled by a routine solution achieved through alibi checks and implied motive. Miss Mitchell plays fair with the reader in that Mrs. Bradley's conclusion is drawn upon facts made known throughout the story, but the game may have been more fun were it less straightforward. But I do love the image of elderly Mrs. Bradley tramping vigorously up and down the lighthouse's winding iron staircase!
Rushy Glen (1950) – 3 stars
The majority of exuberant people sing in their baths. Laura Menzies, personal private secretary to Mrs. Lestrange Bradley, psychiatrist and private detective, always recited in hers.
Summary: Mrs. Bradley is pressed into service to investigate the death of a country squire. The man had apparently been thrown from his horse during a night-time ride, but the old sleuth remains skeptical. Evidence gathered from visits to the cowman who discovered the body and the squire's stableman and housekeeper begin to tell a different story, one that would clear the horse and incriminate a more sinister party.
Review: "Rushy Glen" is a straightforward puzzle wherein the detective's clues include the absence of blood, the incongruous use of a riding hat, and the choice of a mare with foal for a midnight ride. As is sometimes the author's custom, victim, suspects, and murderer all remain offstage, although Mrs. Bradley and Laura are agreeably at center, and the characters they interview are drawn with smart, observant strokes. The quick story has an admirable energy to it, and while it's not revelatory, it is one of Mrs. Bradley's better short story appearances.
Juniper Gammon (1950) – 4 stars
Course, there had to be an inquest, and crowner's verdict were clear. Death by misadventure savaged by a boar. And then, Mrs. Doubleday's pigs, they begin to die.
Summary: An old villager relates the story of a curious death occurring on a pig farm. When a handsome Tamworth boar is accused of goring the owner's son, "an elderly sort of maw by the name of Bradley" looks into the matter and discovers a more complicated chain of events than meets the eye.
Review: This simple story's most obvious strength lies in its folksy, unassuming manner of delivery. The unnamed narrator spins his yarn out of equal interest in village history and entertainment value, and begins with a defense of his current pig's name, Juniper Gammon; the bucolic choices are just right. It's enjoyable to see the occasionally formidable Mrs. Bradley reduced here to one of the ensemble, and yet succeed as detective. The mystery is slight but engaging, and appealingly told: a solid Mitchell character sketch.
The Jar of Ginger (1951) – 2 stars
Reprinted 1951 The Evening Standard Detective Book, Second Series, Gollancz.
Withers had given a perfectly good and very interesting account of how he could murder his landlady, and P. J. Smith had described a method for murdering himself.
Summary: A man called Chart tells a tale that will initiate him into the Society of Thugs. The initiation rite: describe to the club a method for murdering your nearest and dearest. Chart proposes the murder of his wife through a strychnine-laced piece of ginger, placed among the other pieces in the jar. The society members argue various points, such as whether arsenic would be more productive and how to prevent the poisoner from becoming the poisoned. As debate winds down, doubt arises as to whether Chart's murder scheme is purely academic.
Review: This short story's only merit (from my vantage) becomes the high spirits and spirited conversation between the club members. The debated murder method is notable for its high risk and seeming lack of benefits for the murderer (the ginger won't negate the presence of detectable poison; if the ginger is only eaten during dinner, with husband and wife present, there's the disadvantage of the killer being on the scene when the death occurs, disallowing an alibi; etcetera, etcetera). The "twist" contained in the story's final paragraph is an obvious one that most will be expecting. Mrs. Bradley is not around for this story, nor is she needed, as there's no real deduction to be done. A quick, rather forgettable sketch.
Manor Park (1951) – 4 stars
Reprinted 1951 The Evening Standard Detective Book, Second Series, Gollancz.
Taylor, the quiet Scot, had gone up to bed with his wife at just past eleven, and had thrown some water at a cat just before midnight. The cat couldn't swear to this, but the neighbors could.
Summary: A murder suspect's sister relates the story of the death of a disliked schoolmaster. The body of Mr. Baluster is found in the park at night, his head smashed with another master's cricket bat, which is found nearby. There are a number of suspects at the school, including the bat's owner and the narrator's brother Bob (who found Baluster). The police are also puzzled by a set of new school keys discovered in the dead man's pocket, implying that Baluster had access to the cupboard which housed the murder weapon. But the narrator understands that the solution is obvious, provided you look at the facts in the right light.
Review: An entertaining little story, "Manor Park" succeeds due to its combination of well-handled misdirection and camouflaging of clues. By telling a mystery using more than a half-dozen suspects in the length of seven pages, characterization necessarily needs to stay vague, and here characters are pretty much distinguished by name and nationality (James the Welshman, Taylor the Scot). There is hardly any dialogue, which actually works to the story's benefit, as the sister/narrator offers the details to the reader in a conversational retelling of events. Miss Mitchell's short stories are mostly modest little snacks that can't compete with the full, rich feast presented in her novels, but they are generally agreeable and whet the appetite for the more elaborate courses to follow.