THE LONGER BODIES (1930)
1930 Victor Gollancz. Reprinted 1931 Victor Gollancz; 1947 Penguin paperback; 2009 Rue Morgue Press.
"We are in the vicinity of Little Longer, madam... Where the murders have been committed."
"Plural, George?" enquired Mrs. Bradley. "Murders?"
"Yes, so the evening paper I purchased in Southampton indicated, madam. Of course, murder has not yet been proved, but it seems that the body of the young man Anthony has been recovered from burial beneath a heap of gravel, and the police are taking decided steps to trace the origin of a pool of blood in the sunk garden. No trace of a weapon had been found at the time of going to press, but it is suspected that a fairly heavy pointed instrument, covered with rust but retaining something of its original keenness, was used for the purpose of killing the unfortunate man, and the impression of the police seems to be that a verdict of murder and not suicide or accident will be brought in at the inquest."
"Really," said Mrs. Bradley thoughtfully.
At 90, the screeching, still lively Great Aunt Puddequet devises a novel means to determine which of her young nephews stands worthy of her inheritance: she will award her fortune to the relative who shows the greatest promise on her homemade olympics field. Assisted--and occasionally bullied--by the trainer Kost, the five men of the family take up the sports of the discus throw, the long jump, and the shot put with competitive and varied results. Although no one is publicly pursuing the javelin toss, that sharp instrument nevertheless has a way of turning up on the field, the blade's tip stained with blood each time. Mrs. Puddequet watches her relations' training with great interest, though the old lady's constant companion--a nervous young woman once promised her share of the inheritance--and only grandson (now surrounded by rivals to the estate) survey the scene with considerably less amusement.
The tournament gets thrown off-track once the body of a tenant and Little Longer villager is found on the training grounds. Specifically, the luckless man is tied (with gymnasium rope) to a mermaid statue and submerged in the small mere. Inspector Bloxham tries to make sense of the tableau, and soon has a second death to investigate: Puddequet grandson Timon Anthony has been run through with a missing weapon that may closely resemble a javelin. Irritated at these mortal intrusions, Mrs. Puddequet tries to chase the police away from her olympics, but finds a psychiatrist named Bradley (who has taken an interest in the Longer bodies) less easy to deter. While the inspector jumps from one suspect to another, Mrs. Bradley uses logic and psychology to identify the murderer from among the hopeful athletes and inheritors.
Gladys Mitchell's third mystery featuring psychoanalyst Mrs. Beatrice Bradley introduces a setting dear to the schoolteacher and athletic coach author's heart: young people engaged in a sporting competition. And what a singular one it is at that, as the relations battle for an eccentric aunt's inheritance. The screeching, ancient Great Aunt Puddequet is a wonderfully feisty Mitchell creation, and the possibility of the old lady racing around a track in her bathchair in the dead of night (as the inspector at one point suspects) is highly comic. Mrs. Bradley, perhaps yielding the floor to this more voluble lady, is more subdued and less alarming here, though her penchant for unspeakable garments and color combinations is duly noted by several spectators. The Longer Bodies benefits from a typically busy and convoluted plot, though Inspector Bloxham's endless alibi checks and suppositions do tend to bog down the story's pacing in finicky detail. As Mrs. Bradley does not even arrive until the halfway mark, we're left in the company of the colorless police force and the more vivid family of suspects.
Mitchell's characteristic dry humor and ear for dialect are well used here, as evidenced in the speeches of the German trainer Kost, peppered throughout with the helper phrase "perhaps;" and with a battle-ready Scottish cook, who rejects every request given her with the words "I'll see masel' drooned first!" The author's sideways tackling of a fair-play puzzle solution is also on display here, providing answers to the mystery that are simultaneously logical and highly absurd. Longer's attributed motive of the murdered villager, when it arrives at the end, is delightfully novel while remaining maddeningly unguessable. Whether one fixates on the delight or the madness of the gambit will depend on one's tolerance towards Miss Mitchell's bending the rules of, and indeed occasionally outright satirizing, the detective story. To reveal more would be criminal, and I--unlike some--choose not to indulge my baser instincts. The Longer Bodies is worth the trouble of tracking down a paperback copy, though I humbly suggest a reader first become acquainted with Mrs. Bradley elsewhere before essaying this sometimes trying tale.