THE MURDER OF BUSY LIZZIE (1973)
1973 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1973 Thriller Book Club (London).
[The women] had detached the two ashplants from their baggage and were making good use of them as aids to the ascent of the hill.
"Wish we'd thought of walking-sticks," said Sebastian. "Do you know that old lady, Father? I had an impression, when we were on the steamer, that you thought you did."
"I know her by sight and reputation," Marius replied. "I have attended some of her lectures. She is Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, consultant psychiatrist to the Home Office and a criminologist of note."
"Who's the Amazon with her? Not her daughter, surely?"
"She has no daughter, so far as I am aware. Her son is Sir Ferdinand Lestrange, the well-known Queen's Counsel. The younger woman is probably either a travelling companion or her secretary."
"She'd make a pretty efficient bodyguard, too," said Sebastian. "Gosh! What a pace they're setting up this confounded hill! It's enough to kill the old lady."
"It's the old lady who seems to be setting the pace," said Margaret.
Marius Lovelaine has decided to extend the olive-branch and visit his estranged sister at her island-set hotel. He rallies his family together, but wife Clothilde wants nothing to do with sister or island, and opts to visit her cousin instead. Reluctantly, Marius travels to the island of Great Skua with only his grown children in tow: son Sebastian and daughter Margaret are determined to make the most of their holiday. Eliza Lovelaine (now Dashleigh) has invited them to her hotel, though rather dubiously mentioning the guest fees as she did so. Marius and family disembark from the boat, having arrived with a reptilian older lady and her Amazon-sized companion, only to be told that sister Lizzie has not returned from a trip to the mainland. Frustrated, Marius waits for her arrival, but the days pass and the tiny boat never brings the missing woman to the island.
Marius does make the acquaintance of Eliza's business partner, a dour woman named Miss Crimp, who promptly annoys her guest by situating Marius at the hotel while booking his offspring into a separate chalet. An infestation of ornithologists to the island proves the last straw, but before the Lovelaines can make an exit, a birdwatcher spots the body of a woman being tossed against the rocks by a turbulent sea. Identification shows that the unfortunate woman is Eliza Dashliegh. Marius, who had hoped to reconcile with his sister partly to bolster any potential inheritance she might leave, becomes a suspect in the suspicious death, as does the money-minded Miss Crimp and Lizzie's illegitimate son, an island farmer named Ransome Lovelaine.
Sebastian and Margaret find that the family headstones in the churchyard have been defaced in a curious manner, and unsettling actions and signs point to the presence of witchcraft on Great Skua. Dame Beatrice keeps an eye on events, but she and Laura have come to the island on their own mission. Dead pigs, locked lighthouses, midnight rituals and pirates' caves provide enough intrigue for the elderly detective to postpone the writing of her memoirs and investigate the mysteries provided by this wind-swept, rocky Atlantic island.
An agreeable but unremarkable little tale, The Murder of Busy Lizzie suffers a bit by borrowing and merging several Mitchell elements that have been better represented in other, stronger titles. The island setting is used memorably in The Twenty-Third Man and My Father Sleeps, and similar terrain is explored in Skeleton Island and the Mrs. Bradley short story, "A Light on Murder." Seaside smugglers try their trade in The Dancing Druids, The Devil's Elbow, and Skeleton Island, to name a few. Witchcraft and cultism are well represented in The Devil at Saxon Wall, The Worsted Viper, and the later Nest of Vipers. And talkative families with colorful Christian names became a Mitchell staple by the early 1970s, populating several of the later Dame Beatrice stories.
Even though the elements have been put to better use elsewhere, this is still a Gladys Mitchell book, and as such, the writing herein is humorous, witty, and often very enjoyable. Miss Mitchell never appears to tire of narrative experimentation, and the first chapter is notable for its stubborn absence of descriptors; the reader's impression of the four Lovelaine family members is formed solely from their dialogue and interaction with one another. There are no physical, and very few psychological, descriptions to be found in the early prose, which is just as well, as the family members' personalities carry through strongly in what they say to each other and how they say it.
The solution to the Great Skua mystery struck me as a slight disappointment, falling prey to the "arbitrary murderer" affliction that plagues several of Miss Mitchell's later novels. Essentially, three or four other suspects could each have been unmasked as the killer with about the same amount of logic and dramatic weight attached. Still and all, this trip to the island offers some pleasant diversions and agreeable weather, provided you don't mind the occasional ornithologist wandering in and spoiling the view.