THE DANCING DRUIDS (1948)
1948 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1975 Severn House; 1986 St. Martin's Press.
Mrs. Bradley performed her errand of reporting to the police at Welsea Beaches, and then she telephoned the Chief Constable, waking him, to his peevish annoyance, from his light, pleasant sleep of the early morning.
"You ought to be up and about," said Mrs. Bradley firmly. "Now get out of bed at once, and come and see me. I've all sorts of things to tell you, and your Superintendent at Welsea will have things all his own way if you don't come along and begin to order him about."
"But what mare's-nest have you got for us this time?"
"A dead body, of course. Two, as a matter of fact, only one was murdered and the other was killed accidentally. Still, you ought to be on the spot. The Druids have danced."
Mike O'Hara is a young, handsome distance runner, working with his fellow athletes to catch his cousin, Gerry Gascoyne, in a cross-country game of hare and hounds. Playing a hunch, Mike separates from the group and soon encounters a man who tells him his quarry travelled down a lonely footpath. Instinct tells him otherwise, but Mike follows the path and is soon in unfamiliar territory.
As night falls and it begins to rain, Mike stops at a solitary cottage to ask for directions. The woman at the house tells Mike she's with a very sick man who has to be taken to hospital. Mike offers to help, and is soon working with a tall stranger to move the sick man--who is bundled from head to toe in blankets--onto a makeshift stretcher and into a car. Told to hold their bundled passenger upright, Mike grows more and more uneasy of the situation and increasingly alarmed at the deathly stillness of the sick man. Uncertain of what lay ahead, Mike jumps out of the moving car and tumbles out, escaping from the strange scene.
O'Hara and Gascoyne decide to tell Mike's story to Ferdinand Lestrange. The lawyer is not available, but much to the boys' luck, Ferdinand's mother is quite interested in Mike's tale. Mrs. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley is on the case, and what criminal activity she uncovers--with the help of Mike and Gerry, secretary Laura Menzies, chauffeur George, nephew Denis Bradley, and a troupe of hired film extras--centers around a circle of nine prehistoric stones called the Dancing Druids.
An entertaining adventure story, The Dancing Druids has many positive merits, and features an appealing cast where everybody joins the fray, including Laura (who scrambles across fields to keep sight of a particularly gruesome piece--or pieces--of evidence), nephew Denis (engaging in fisticuffs) and George, in fine form erasing tracks from the gravel road and withholding information from the Chief Constable, all in dedicated service to his employer. Gladys Mitchell's excellent, and often dark, sense of humor runs through the book, balancing well against the very busy plot. In fact, this is the most action-oriented Mrs. Bradley title I have encountered thus far. The energy recalls the adventures of Robert Louis Stevenson's tales, or the Hardy Boys' mysterious cave/creepy cottage stories (Druids has both cave and cottage). Laura aptly describes her awareness to "the boys'-book atmosphere of the proceedings." I rather like the mix of action and detection, and believe it works well here; the plot's physicality suits an adventure initiated by two varsity runners.
In addition to the spectacle of Mrs. Bradley hiding behind a druid stone, revolver, torch and flask of brandy contained within "the capacious pocket of her skirt," this story offers a hilarious and memorable bit of trivia: chauffeur George's proposal of a new surname. The name--and George's reasoning behind it--is sublimely goofy, and as Laura, "showing signs of incipient hysteria," tries to dissuade him, the reader is again reminded that Miss Mitchell's tales often blend humor and horror, intelligence and silliness, together in a unique and wonderful way. Equally delightful is the ceaseless exasperation Mrs. Bradley causes the Chief Constable, as she is always a step ahead of the policeman and brings him the news after events have taken place; see the top quote for an example.