THE DEATH-CAP DANCERS (1981)
1981 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1981 St. Martin's Press (U.S.); 1982 Magna Large Print; 1982 London: Thriller Book Club; 1986 Paperjacks (Canada).
[Dame Beatrice:] "I want to talk to Miss Tamsin Lindsay, John Trent and my great-niece. I have a feeling that they are the people who can convince me that I have come to the correct conclusion."
[Laura:] "Do you mean that you can name the murderer?"
"I can produce a name, yes. Proof is a different matter. The evidence I have gathered is purely psychological and would never be accepted in a court of law. This is a classic case of rejection followed by vengeance."
"So it's a woman's crime?" asked Laura. "I could believe that if I didn't know that both the obvious murderers are dead."
While en route to visit relatives, Hermione Lestrange falls into company with three agreeable women who are spending their autumn holiday in a forest cabin. Out for a drive, the group discovers a battered bicycle by the side of the road, and closer inspection reveals the unfortunate owner, seemingly dead from head wounds, her body found in a nearby ravine. The police are contacted, but Hermione becomes concerned that suspicion may fall on herself and her new acquaintances, as the scene resembles a hastily covered-up automobile accident. Fearing the worst, she rings up her great-aunt and voices her fears.
The young women are ultimately exonerated, but in a quite unforseen way: there is a second murder, and an attempted third, and each of the victims or near-victims (including the roadside casualty) is a member of a touring folk-dancing troupe staying at a local hostel. The newest attacks occured after a performance of hornpipe- and morris-dancing, which Hermione and her friends had attended. One dancer was set upon and her body pushed into a broom closet; another troupe member--a man still wearing a lady's wig to replace the absent cyclist in dances--was knocked unconscious and left for dead in the bushes outside. While Inspector Ribble concentrates his investigation on the movements of the folk-dance group, Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley considers a longer list of suspects. The Home Office psychoanalyst also imagines a wider range of scenarios than her more dogmatic police counterpart, some of which put Hermione and her friends in danger. Sending her great-niece (and her group) back to her father's pig farm in Stanton St. John, Dame Beatrice builds the case study of a very disturbed individual--someone who takes pleasure in pushing the death-cap mushroom into a victim's wounds.
A little background: The Death-Cap Dancers was the first late-period Gladys Mitchell book I ever read and, if I remember correctly, the third Mitchell tale I encountered. I began my passion for Miss Mitchell's stories with 1945's classic The Rising of the Moon, a paperback reprint of which I picked up in a remainder bookstore for three dollars in 1999. Thoroughly enjoying this adolescent's-eye account of life and murder in a sleepy English village, I tried 1932's The Saltmarsh Murders and was promptly won over by the book's Wodehousian humor, eccentric characters (led by a screeching, frightening elderly detective!), and clever, clear satire of detective novel conventions within a genre that was still very strong. And then, for my third read, I chose Death-Cap, a step away from the strong narrative voice and hyper-imaginative plotting of Mitchell's 30s and 40s efforts, to say the least.
Now, with the experience of 40-plus Mrs. Bradley adventures to put things in perspective, a rereading of The Death-Cap Dancers yields some kinder, and slightly surprising, conclusions. Not only is Death-Cap a decent read, especially when judged against the output of Miss Mitchell's last decade (and the fact that there was considerable output at two books a year is alone cause for celebration!), but it was more logical, lucid, and engaging than I had remembered. As book #3, I was very disappointed to find the fighting, saurian Mrs. Bradley of earlier times grown into a tame, nondescript shadow of her former self. Indeed, I'm still usually disappointed when Dame Beatrice subs for the livelier Mrs. Croc. Plotlines from about 1960 onwards tend to mellow as well, becoming more procedure-based and less surprising as the years wear on. Knowing that now, I was able to try The Death-Cap Dancers again, this time without such high expectations.
And they were pleasantly met. There's still a little more nattering about dance programme itinerary and hostel housekeeping obligations than is strictly healthy in a mystery novel, but the story is decently paced and, though not exactly classically clued, the murderer is represented more strongly (i.e., less randomly) than I had remembered. 1936's Dead Men's Morris is referenced here, as Death-Cap gives a nod to both folk dancing and the pig-farming Lestranges (Hermione is the daughter of Carey and Jenny), and with mention of the Ditches, the farm's colorful family of hired help. Though this late entry lacks the spirit of Gladys Mitchell's best books, one can hardly fault its author for slowing down after 80 years and nearly 60 Beatrice Bradley mysteries.