SPEEDY DEATH (1929)
1929 Victor Gollancz; 1929 Dial Press (U.S.). Reprinted 1932 Mason Publishing Co. (U.S.); 1943 Penguin paperback; 1988 Hogarth Crime; 1999 Black Dagger Crime.
"Here, I say!" exclaimed Bertie, in mingled amusement and disgust. "Whom are you accusing of being the murderer?"
"I accuse no one," Mrs. Bradley replied coolly. "I know what I know, and I deduce what I deduce. But accusation--that is not my business. I am a psychologist, not a policewoman. Some are killers, and some are not. But you, young man--"
She paused, and Bertie broke into happy laughter. Mrs. Bradley shook her head at him like a playful alligator.
"All very well to be amused," she said. "But you wait and see! Just you wait and see!"
At the country manor house of Chaynings, the assembled guests--led by their blustery host, Alastair Bing--are ready to dine. The table boasts a respected scientist named Carstairs and an observant old psychoanalyst by the name of Bradley, but one chair remains vacant. Famed explorer Everard Mountjoy has yet to appear, and enquiries among the servants have yielded no results. Time passes and patience runs short, and Bing and a few male guests search for the absent Mountjoy. They find him in the bathtub of a second floor bathroom, dead from drowning. At least, it must be Mountjoy; and yet the body in the bath is clearly a woman's!
The police are summoned, theories are expounded, and Mrs. Bradley witnesses all with a basilisk eye. The tribulations at Chaynings, it seems, have just begun: before long, the manor house is beset by shrieks in the night, missing bathroom stools, broken clocks, attacks upon mannequin masks, and two drowning attempts. Finally, Bing's daughter Eleanor becomes the victim of a poisoning--her body is discovered in that ominous bathtub. Inspector Boring prepares a case against the last person to see Eleanor alive, and arrests Mrs. Beatrice Lestrange Bradley for murder.
Mrs. Bradley, that inimitable detective destined to continue on through an impressive series of 65 more mysteries, is introduced here in Speedy Death, formidable likeness to a reptile or bird of prey and penchant for extraordinary color schemes already in place. Her skin (we are told) is yellow, her frame lean and bony, and she possesses gleaming black eyes, but her beautiful, modulated voice belies her severe features. She causes fright and unease in her conversants, but inspires confidence and a feeling of stability as well (perhaps those with a clear conscience fare best). In this story, she acknowledges her age as 57; her career, in literary form, will span another five decades.
Author Gladys Mitchell's premier effort nicely illustrates her storytelling strengths, particularly her quick, dynamic prose and penchant for tangled--and fast-moving--mystery plots. As with Speedy Death, the great majority of Miss Mitchell's book plots are unique, striking, and memorable, and often different in situation and handling than those of any of her contemporaries. They also--as with this very first mystery--tend to push the boundaries of coincidence and acceptable action from a more or less sane murderer. There is always a lot of plot in a Mitchell book, and sometimes not enough explanation given with which to untangle it. Character motivations and actions are sometimes left obscured or untended, or worse, are explained away with one unsatisfactory line that only raises more questions. Mitchell's villains often jump through a lot of hoops to achieve their ends, and the reader may be left pondering the merit (or sense) of all this expended energy. Printer's Error and Here Comes a Chopper are two examples of enjoyable but cluttered plots, and their stories offer a high signal-to-noise ratio.
No such problem in Speedy Death: actions are accounted for, motivations are attributed, and by the time Mrs. Bradley stands trial for murder--a procedure the psychoanalyst observes with clinical detachment and much amusement--the only plot detail not answered is why old Mountjoy decided to masquerade as a man in the first place. The tale proves a bit melodramatic in spots, but less so than I remembered and never so outrageously as to detract from the Golden Age mystery at heart. Miss Mitchell here also peppers her prose with adverbs--more often than not characters speak mildly, gravely, determinedly, etcetera. (In contrast, by the 1960s her writing style has become dialogue-based, and narration--even character identification (who is saying what)--has been minimized to serve a swift story.) Minor criticisms, these; Speedy Death is very enjoyable and still highly readable, and is as good a place as any to first meet the redoubtable Mrs. Bradley.