THE MAN WHO GREW TOMATOES (1959)
1959 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1959 London House & Maxwell (U.S.), 1976 Severn House.
"It was the housekeeper here who told me about it when she gave notice. She seemed to think it was a scandalous thing to say about the boy. She also said there was no way in which Stephen could have imbibed anything alcoholic. And, of course, he wasn't poisoned. He was drowned. I mean--"
"Poisoned and drowned, it would appear," said Dame Beatrice.
Mr. Hugh Camber, claiming the family estate as his own following an inheritance, does not receive quite the warm welcome that he has expected. Housestaff members give their notice, the chauffeur is released following a wave of insubordination, and the villagers seem reluctant to account for the tension that accompanies the house. Slowly, Hugh gathers up enough information to draw some conclusions. It appears that upon Paul Camber's death, the household fears the inevitable arrival of a widowed aunt, Mrs. Hal Camber, to claim the estate for herself and her rather insufferable young son. There are rumors of unpleasantness between a dismissed Camber tutor and a local farm girl. Added to that, much speculation is given to the demise of Paul Camber: he was found drowned in a Scotland stream. Paul's son, master Stephen, had also drowned in a local river a few months earlier, and an eyewitness noted that the boy appeared to be drunk as he made his way along the bank.
As prophesied by the Camber housemaids, Mrs. Hal arrives at the estate with her son in tow, and with the intention of settling in. Sympathetic but resolute, Hugh locks horns with this domineering relation and eventually sends her back to her home. Shortly thereafter, villagers start receiving anonymous letters which accuse Hugh of the murder of his relatives. When Hugh and his fiancee, the vicar's sister, are sent similar notes, Hugh asks Dame Beatrice to travel to the Norfolk estate and venture an opinion as to the writer's identity. Hugh already suspects the exiled aunt, but, as Dame Beatrice points out, it is curious that the letters specifically refer to murder when accusations of other ill behaviors would blacken a name equally well. After all, both Paul and Stephen Camber were accorded rulings of accidental death.
And then there are the tomatoes. Parlourmaid Ethel lifted three from Paul Camber's dining room table and became quite sick after eating them. Master Stephen's final lunch was said to contain tomatoes. But from where did these intoxicating fruits originate? And how did they find their way into the Camber house? Dame Beatrice uses her knowledge of poisons, salmon fishing, agriculture, pig farming, and the deviousness of human nature to solve this agreeable countryside mystery.
A recent rereading of this book yielded several fine (re)discoveries: an engaging skeletons-in-the-family-closet plotline, a story that is detailed and complex but not top-heavy, and a well-paced momentum that carries Dame B. to the rivers of Scotland, where she tries her hand at salmon fishing, are among the small pleasures. The pleasures are small because the story is small, but in a very satisfying way. Tomatoes lacks the structural ambition of earlier books like The Devil at Saxon Wall and When Last I Died, and though the tone here is light and enjoyable, the element of skillful farce found in The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop and The Saltmarsh Murders is missing. What we have is a very entertaining pastoral mystery close in spirit and scenery to other fine titles from the 1950s, notably Groaning Spinney and The Echoing Strangers. In these books, the drawing-room cosy is transplanted to the seasonal English countryside, and the airing does the story good. Gladys Mitchell had a healthy enthusiasm for the outdoors, and these middle-period tales -- whether concerning bodies found under a wintry snowfall, murder on the springtime cricket green, or cast-fishing in the sunny Scottish highlands -- incorporate and celebrate her traveller's interest. They're very efficient, nicely spirited, quite fun books, and worth a look to any Mitchell fan.
I appreciate the fact that Gladys Mitchell rarely relied on poisons to achieve the fatal results in her murder novels. Whereas Agatha Christie was a wartime nurse, and her books often traded on her knowledge of poisons and drugs (cyanide and arsenic are common methods of murder in the Christie canon, and she may have singlehandedly brought the phrase "scent of bitter almonds" into common parlance), Miss Mitchell is arguably more imaginative and more resourceful: victims are drowned in buckets, hanged during stage performance, suffocated with modelling clay, bludgeoned upon druidic stone altars, pushed out of windows (twice, if necessary), and allowed to perish in bear traps, to name but a few scenarios. It can also be argued that she was less learned on poisons than her more famous colleague, and this is almost surely true. But when Mitchell does dip into her lethal apothecary, the results are unique and entirely her own. In this instance, it is the creation of tomatoes with a surplus of atropine when the plant is handily crossed with the deadly nightshade.
Tomatoes is also notable for the near perfect balance within its ensemble cast. In some books, secretary Laura Gavin's ubiquitous presence threatens to overturn her Watson-Holmes relationship with Mrs. Bradley; and while scenes with the gentleman chauffeur George are always a delight, he is sometimes relegated to the background and the merest of mentions. I am pleased to report that Laura accompanies but never overtakes her employer here, and that her presence in the few chapters feels just right. Further, George receives equal time to Laura, and makes an appropriately strong impression as Dame B.'s unofficial bodyguard in the final chapters.