THE ECHOING STRANGERS (1952)
1952 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1975 Severn House.
Mrs. Bradley had already noticed the chess board. She went over to it, however, and inspected it closely.
"Quite a tricky proposition," she remarked.
"I should just about think so. I retired, as you can see, my position being absolutely hopeless."
"Not absolutely," said Mrs. Bradley pensively. She stretched out a yellow claw.
"There is the answer." She moved her grand-nephew's pieces. "And if that doesn't warn him he's very foolish indeed."
"Warn him? What do you want to warn him about?"
Mrs. Bradley cackled, and did not reply.
Mrs. Bradley first meets seventeen-year old Francis Caux when she witnesses him push his guardian into a river. The teen is a sullen deaf-mute who has lately been behaving strangely. Normally an enthusiastic swimmer, Francis has recently been avoiding the water, refusing to go near the river or the boathouse.
Pairing Francis with her grand-nephew Godfrey Lestrange, Mrs. Bradley's artistic encouragement of the quiet boy yields a surprise. Francis shapes modeling clay into the figure of a man and places the figure under a toy boat. The psychiatrist correctly interprets the grim demonstration, and police find the body of a neighboring lodger chained to the underside of the boathouse's dinghy.
Meanwhile in the village of Mede, Sir Adrian Caux is advertising for a teacher who would make a good cricket player first and a tutor for his grandson Derek second. He finds such a person in Tom Donagh, an amiable Irishman who's promptly recruited for the cricket match against Bruke, Mede's village rival. Spirits and tempers run high during the game, and both teams play to win. Shortly after Sir Adrian sends Derek back to the house, the Bruke captain is found in the changing room, his head smashed in with a cricket bat.
As Mrs. Bradley looks into this second murder, she befriends Tom Donagh and they soon learn the story of Francis and Derek Caux. The twins were separated at the age of seven when their parents died in an auto accident. Sir Adrian took custody of Derek, assigning a guardian to the deaf and dumb Francis, and the two boys grew up kept apart fom each other, Sir Adrian barely acknowledging Francis to his brother. But Mrs. Bradley suspects the teens are closer than they appear, and she soon has to consider the disturbing possibility that they may be conspirators in murder.
By the 1950s, Gladys Mitchell had written more than 20 Mrs. Bradley mysteries. Her detective had appeared in her earliest literary incarnations as a larger-than-life creature, frightening adults and enchanting children with her witch-like appearance and her melodious voice. When we catch up with Mrs. Bradley in 1952's The Echoing Strangers, she is not as volatile, though just as intelligent, as in her earlier portrayals. Mrs. Croc's "mellowing" was a conscious choice of the author, and this occurred gradually over the course of the series. This change in characterization is accompanied by a change in narrative tone that gives many of the '50s and '60s books a pleasing solidity and coherence. Miss Mitchell was from the start an assured storyteller, but the structure and style of her middle period books carry a matter-of-fact tone that well serves her complex plots. Often, even when the story is convoluted or light (The Man Who Grew Tomatoes , Twelve Horses and the Hangman's Noose ), the confidence of the narration provides a welcome anchor. And when the story is really good, as in The Echoing Strangers, the gravity provided by this clear, almost journalistic tone turns a good read into a great one.
I'll begin at the end, and mention that this book's final chapter was extremely satisfying. Sometimes when I finish a Mrs. Bradley book I'm left with the feeling that I'm missing a couple pages, perhaps even a chapter. The explanations and attributions aren't hurried exactly, but the reader is left trying to shoehorn all of this new information into the series of events that brought us here. While Strangers still employs convoluted logic, Mrs. Bradley makes the puzzle pieces fit snugly, almost inevitably into place. The story, revolving around twin brothers and their too-selective uncle, is dramatic and surprising, and once again, if you submit yourself to the laws and reasonings of Mrs. Bradley's universe (where bodies are manacled to boat undersides when simply hiding the corpse would have been infinitely easier), then a fantastic story awaits you.
Gladys Mitchell makes full use of her Gemini plotline, and dual images and actions and their echoes abound. The two murder victims share identical traits that ultimately doom them. The villages of Bruke and Mede are twin communities that carry contempt for one another, though the villagers have probably long ago forgotten why. And identical twins Francis and Derek Caux stand at the center of the murder investigation, enigmatic young men who will only share with each other the truth about the strange events occurring around them. An excellent, intriguing book.