THE NODDING CANARIES (1961)
1961 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1987 Severn House; 1988 Chivers Large Print.
"How soon can we explore Pigmy's Ladder?" asked Laura, eager for action.
"As soon as ever the butane is dispersed. But we shall not explore the workings until the police have located and brought up the body."
"There won't be much point in exploring after that," said Laura, in a tone of disappointment.
Dame Beatrice is summoned by schoolmistress Alice Boorman, who has found herself in a bit of a predicament. While hosting two candidates for a rival teaching position, the group visits the mine shafts of Pigmy's Ladder, where the two visitors explore under ground while Alice, subject to claustrophobia, stays above. Out of sight much longer than expected, Alice begins to worry about her charges; a search finds the teachers unconscious from the heavy presence of butane (or calor) gas within the shafts. Concerned that she may be accused of trying to do in her job rivals, Alice appeals to Dame Beatrice, who is quick to assure her that the gas was meant for someone else. She proves this by conducting the police to the body of Oliver Breydon-Waters, walled up in an underground alcove at the prehistoric site.
The elderly detective focuses on the Nodding archaeological society, and soon learns that Breydon-Waters was not well-liked. The victim's mother is in questionable contact with her son from the spirit world, and she shows Dame Beatrice his collection of earthly possessions which seem to include several artifacts and relics lifted from various digs. While gas cannisters were found beside Breydon-Waters' body, death was assuredly caused by a severe blow to the head. Had the man known something which led to his demise? Or had his illicit activities caught up with him? If Breydon-Waters' mother was indeed in celestial communication with him, that avenue of investigation reaches an end when the lady is poisoned by salts of lemon. As Dame Beatrice digs deeper, she uncovers a murderer whose motive may be sincere but whose actions are disturbingly deadly.
A tale of interviews and information collection, The Nodding Canaries is a workable entry in the series, but a little too workmanlike in plot to be truly inspired. By the late 1950s, Gladys Mitchell had settled down in narrative style and structure to produce uniformly decent stories that would continue (more or less) in the same vein and with the same quality until her death in 1983. Canaries joins the likes of Spotted Hemlock and A Javelin for Jonah as good but not great stories with school-set trappings (for great, visit the earlier books Death at the Opera or Tom Brown's Body). Alice Boorman is, of course, the same young lady first introduced in 1942's Laurels Are Poison; acquaintances and relatives do have a habit of reappearing from time to time within the Mrs. Bradley books.
For all its disposability, The Nodding Canaries does contain some wry comic touches and small delights, from young Hamish Gavin's precocity at the dinner-table to Mrs. Breydon-Waters' casual (and selective) communication with the spirit world. A broken phallus may or may not have been an incitement to murder and, rather impressively, the book's title is cleverly figurative, though Mitchell never directly spells out her allusion. (The town carries the name of Nodding, moving it from adjectival status to proper noun; canaries were distributed in mine shafts, alerting -- through their dying -- miners to the presence of methane gas.) Once again, Gladys Mitchell provides a unique backdrop for her murder mystery, i.e., the prehistoric grounds of Pigmy's Ladder, and one that uses an English landmark in an evocative way. A decent middle-period entry among the many Mrs. Bradley books, The Nodding Canaries is worth a nodding acquaintance for Mitchell completists.