THE DEVIL'S ELBOW (1951)
1951 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1975 Severn House; 1977 Sheldon House; 1988 Sphere paperback.
I had a fairly sticky letter from the coach people for letting one of the passengers get murdered, but they've paid my salary all right...
George Jeffries has his work cut out for him. He is courier of a coach bus tour of Scotland and must use his skills as guide, shepherd and babysitter to move his group happily through the Highlands. George recounts his various trials and frustrations through spirited letters to his fiancee Em, who happens to be acting as Mrs. Bradley's replacement secretary (Laura is on holiday). George paints the personalities of his tour group with flair and humor: among others, there's Mrs. Cassock, a psychotic woman who smashes objects without warning; Robert Binns, a boy who considers lock-picking a hobby; cantankerous Miss Pew, content with nothing; "the vicious Pratt and her satellite Nordle," two grating young women vying for George's absent affections; Commander Parks, an ex-Royal Navy man with his own boating itinerary; and driver Bert Edwards, an amiable family man in charge of navigating the bus around the dangerous mountain path called "the Devil's Elbow."
A little past Inverness, George receives some nasty news: after missing for a few days, Miss Pratt's body is found aboard Parks's hired boat, rolled up in a rug with a note reading "the Devil gives the elbow to such as this." But how did the body get on board? And where is Miss Pratt's film camera, an accessory the woman used throughout the trip? Upon Em's request, Mrs. Bradley conducts a rousing round of interviews, with Detective-Inspector Gavin--Laura's future husband--and Inspector Mactavish of the Perthshire police in tow, and separates the lesser criminals from the greater ones.
This book has two primary narrative viewpoints: George Jeffries' letters to Em, chronicling his experiences on the coach tour, and a series of suspect interviews (the chapter heading reads "Mrs. Bradley's Conversations"). The dual perspectives complement each other quite well, and I found this one of Gladys Mitchell's most entertaining reads. As is almost always the case with the Mrs. Bradley books, the journey proves richer and more satisfying than the destination. The tour guide's letters offer particularly colorful prose, and it's this vividness that endears me to Miss Mitchell's books. Consider this passage from a frustrated George, and remember that a lesser author may have employed a simple, drab yet succinct phrase like "He insisted on hiring a boat and breaking from the tour" in place of this grand flight of fancy:
Nothing would suit Parks...but to toddle off to sea. Not the proper sea, either, mark you, where he could have paddled his tootsies, eaten ice-cream, seen a Punch and Judy show, bought some cockles, put a penny in the slot to see what the butler saw, and otherwise renewed his childhood memories. No. Nothing like that. Not even a little boat and a local boatman for a spot of fishing. Not even a fun fair or a pin-table or a shooting gallery. Not even a shrimping net and his trousers turned up to the knee while he splashed earnestly about in low-tide pools and little crabs bit his big toe.
The Devil's Elbow's cast of characters offers an entertaining mix of personalities, although a rereading was needed to recall murderer and motive. The novel benefits greatly from its Scottish locale, and would make a good travel mystery read for those on coach tours of their own. Attention to story details, which is always necessary to comprehend a tangled Mitchell plot, is even more valuable here, as a couple different plotlines spin out and similarly-named characters need to be kept straight. Among the tourists are a Miss Nordle and a Miss Durdle, a Pratt, Parks, Peel and Pew, two Miss Tooleys and a Togg. It's not impossible to remember who's who, but for once I could've used an Agatha Christie/Ngaio Marsh-like "cast of characters" list for reference. Fans of Miss Mitchell's high spirited, comic outings should have a grand time on this trip.