SPOTTED HEMLOCK (1958)
1958 Michael Joseph. 1958 British Book Centre (U.S.) Reprinted 1960 Penguin Paperback; 1985 St. Martin's Press; 1986 Paperjacks; 2014 Vintage Press.
"No, we can wash out any idea of she did it herself. Besides, with her knowledge, she'd have chose an easier way out, that's what I think."
"She'd have chose the gas oven," said [the victim's aunt], "and not one of those nasty poisons. She'd know it would bring on pains and make her sick, and she always did hate to be sick. 'I'd rather die than be sick,' she's said to me more than once when she was a child. Her little stomach wasn't all that strong and she often was sick, poor mite. 'I'd rather die than be sick,' she used to say. So she'd hardly have chose a nasty poison as the way out."
When two male students execute a rag against the nearby Calladale women's agricultural college--a prank involving rhubarb and dead rats--the ladies decide to give the men back some of their own. They collect the litter and sneak it over to a pub which happens to be a favorite with the men. Their plans of storing the collection are not successful, however, as the ornamental horse carriage beside the pub where they were going to store the contents is already occupied--with the unrecognizable body of a woman clothed in a Calladale blazer.
Inquiries at the college reveal that one student, Norah Palliser, has been missing for several days. When Dame Beatrice enters the investigation (at the request of nephew Carey Lestrange, who is teaching pig farming at Calladale) another incident comes to light: days ago, a student returning late to the campus encountered the spectral vision of a cloaked, larger-than-life horseman galloping down the college's moonlit path. Dame Beatrice finds the story most interesting, and other facts soon emerge: Norah Palliser was secretly married to a penniless painter named Coles; she may have been connected with Carey's predecessor, a man with questionable morals nicknamed by the students as "Piggy" Basil; and petty thefts have been occuring within the college.
The coroner reports death by coniine poisoning, probably extracted from the root of spotted hemlock; there's also the puzzling fact that the victim is physically older than Norah Palliser's twenty-three years. But if the body isn't Norah Palliser-Coles, who is it? And where is Norah? Dame Beatrice travels to Northern Ireland, upper Scotland and southern Italy on her rounds of alibi-breaking, until she is ready to place her cards on the table and reveal the solution.
As mysteries, and especially as Gladys Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley tales, go, Spotted Hemlock's plot and story aren't particularly notable or memorable, in my opinion. The central mystery is intriguing and develops nicely, but doesn't have the satisfying momentum and inevitability found in Mitchell's better works. The killer's identity at the end could have been exchanged with that of a couple other suspects, with no great alarm or untidiness. It's a worthwhile addition to the Dame Beatrice series, and of course it's fun to see the elderly sleuth travel hither and yon to chase down a lead. Ultimately, though, this is one of those middle-period Mitchell books, like The Devil's Elbow or Three Quick and Five Dead (both of which I enjoyed more), where many of the chapters are given over to suspect interviews and alibi checks.
That opinion stated, I also found within the book some wonderful, marvelously entertaining dialogue and prose. I'm reminded time and again when reading a Gladys Mitchell story that the woman is a great writer. She is adept at turning smart phrases, crafting pleasing dialogue, summoning vivid descriptions and, when she's at her best, creating her own detailed, microcosmic world within the pages of her books. I've always been a fan of dry understatement found within English humor, and Miss Mitchell often provides tiny delights. Take this exchange between Dame Beatrice and agriculturalist nephew Carey Lestrange:
"What are you going to do when you've drunk your tea?"
"Explain what you do when your pigs contract scouring, swine fever and tuberculosis."
"Surely not at one and the same time? That, I feel, would make medical history, even among pigs."
"Too right it would. It's an either/or proposition."
Then there's this paragraph, found in the chapter playfully entitled, "See Naples and Die:"
Vesuvius, with its pillar of cloud by day and its lurid glow by night, dominated the sky to the south of the city and gave a Satanic welcome to travellers, reminding them of Pompeii, Herculaneum and the state of their own souls.
The wit and sparkle of Spotted Hemlock's prose makes for a pleasant and diverting journey, even though the garden path on which the reader travels is rather a routine one.