THE MUDFLATS OF THE DEAD (1979)
1979 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1980 London: Thriller Book Club.
"What makes her friends think that the verdict on the girl was wrong?"
Dame Beatrice explained and Dunlop whistled.
"They might have something there," he said. "The undertow on an outgoing tide is notorious all around these coasts, but you say the girl knew about the tides and wouldn't have taken any risks."
"I know only what I have been told."
"Well, I'll see what I can find out. Thanks very much for seeing me and letting me in on this. Silent as the grave until you give me the all-clear."
"Yes, silent as the grave," said Dame Beatrice.
Young schoolmaster-turned-author Colin Palgrave seeks inspiration for his second novel among the dunes and beaches of Saltacres, where he plans to spend his holiday. He encounters one rather forthright character straight away, and that in the form of 20-year old Camilla Hoveton St. John, a vacationing art student. After some undisguised flirting, Camilla invites Palgrave to stay with her and two others at a beachfront rental, and Palgrave warily accepts. All goes well until the early arrival of the next week's tenants: Colin is surprised to find Morag Lowson, to whom he was once engaged, with her doctor husband and luggage in tow.
The house becomes uncomfortably crowded and, growing weary of Camilla's amorous advances, Palgrave opts to sleep in his car. Unable to settle into his cramped quarters, he is persuaded by Camilla to join her in an evening swim. A little later, he leaves the young woman in the sea and returns to the house and his makeshift bed. The morning yields an unpleasant discovery: Camilla's body has washed up on the beach. An inquest determines that the death was accidental, and that the woman had probably been caught in the undertow of an outgoing tide.
But what has happened to the unlucky art student's suitcase? It has disappeared from the rental house, and in reality it must have been removed during the night by one of the occupants. A sightless "mumper" (here, a derelict beachcomber) named the Old Mole provides the answer when he finds the hastily buried case of clothes among the dunes. And who was the figure in white that Palgrave saw on the night of Camilla's drowning? All of this activity gives the novelist the inspiration he had hoped for; but when the manuscript turns out to contain more truth than fiction, an unamused murderer makes plans to deposit another body among the mudflats.
A sturdy, logical, and quite entertaining later entry in the Dame Beatrice series, The Mudflats of the Dead resembles in tone and quality some of Gladys Mitchell's better last-decade titles, such as Here Lies Gloria Mundy (1982) and No Winding-Sheet (1984). Like Gloria Mundy, Mudflats has a sexually dangerous troublemaker as victim, and in fact both books make room for the changing social mores of the 1970s, even while the plots hardly condone such behavior (it is no coincidence that blackmail and murder spring from each character's harlotry). That said, Miss Mitchell shows a sympathetic acknowledgement of such unseemly goings-on, and it should be remembered that her earliest stories from 1929 and the 1930s were often well ahead of their time, broaching such thorny subjects as nudism, transvestism, pornography and incest, sexual topics that other mystery writers would understandably grant a wide berth. In Mudflats, one of the dead girl's peers offers the following self-observation on this "permissive society":
"People are always changing their sleeping partners. Nobody we know would murder anybody because of a swap-over of bodies, otherwise we'd all be in Kensal Green by now."
The plotting here is smartly paced (as usual) and pleasantly unpredictable, and the mystery is a compelling one. It is also quite fun to observe the very prolific Gladys Mitchell's portrait of an earnest and slightly egotistical junior novelist, still wet behind the ears. Young Colin Palgrave tries to glean a story from his holiday surroundings, and anyone familiar with Miss Mitchell's many geographically specific tales (this one included) will spot an obvious parallel. And though benign in her later years, Dame Beatrice takes resource from the seacoast to quote Sir Walter Scott's ballad of Young Lochinvar and summon the spirit of King Canute. The result is a story as steady as the Essex tides, and one well worth the wading.