THE TWENTY-THIRD MAN (1957)
1957 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1961 Penguin Paperback; 1985 Michael Joseph reissue; 1987 Chivers Large Print; 2011 Vintage Press.
Cover scan provided by Ash Rare Books.
"Clement pushed her into the ornamental lake yesterday. Of course, Clement is not like other children," said his foster-mother. "We believe in absolute freedom. Any psychiatrist will tell you..."
"Pardon me, but there is at least one who will not."
"I meant to say--"
"You see, I am a psychiatrist myself."
"Oh? Oh! Then you'll be just the person!"
"I am afraid I must contradict you."
"I am here on holiday, and, in any case, my methods would prove too drastic for Clement, I fear."
"Oh, I don't mean shock treatment or anything of that kind! I thought an analysis under light hypnosis would be best."
Dame Beatrice cackled. "Hypnosis would certainly be necessary," she agreed. She got up. "I am glad your son did not push me into the ornamental pond."
"Well, for your sake..." Mrs. Drashleigh began.
"For his," said Dame Beatrice.
In a mountainside cave on the Canary island of Hombres Muertos rests the twenty-three dead men, mummified ancient kings still adorned in their royal robes and jewelry. Dame Beatrice chooses this colorful spot as a holiday destination, and quickly discovers that her fellow travellers are bringing their own ghosts to the island. Caroline Lockerby, an emotional young woman visiting Hombres Muertos with her enigmatic brother, Telham, has left England to forget a strange incident that resulted in the death of her husband. Another ship passenger, a pale man named Clun, has recently been released from prison after serving a sentence for manslaughter. The hotel residents are equally infamous: there's Mrs. Angel, a woman who, according to rumor, does brisk business in native slave sales; Mr. Peterhouse, an eccentric who cultivates poisonous Alpine plants; and Karl Emden, a handsome lothario whose dalliances have been infuriating women (and their boyfriends and fathers) across the island. There's even a tiny group of native bandits, led by men nicknamed Tio Caballo and Jose el Lupe.
Shortly after Dame Beatrice settles in at the hotel, Karl Emden disappears, and the concensus agrees he's gone to live among the troglodyte cave-dwellers and is hiding from someone. An expedition to the cave of dead kings creates in Caroline hysteria, in Telham a controlled calm, and in Mr. Peterhouse an uncharacteristic silence. Dame Beatrice also notes that the figure of the twenty-third man is taller than his companions. The disappearance of a mischievous and headstrong boy named Clement brings about a second examination of the cave, and Dame B. is not surprised to discover the body of Emden, a knife still stuck into his back, taking the place of the twenty-third king.
Clement's restoration occurs after some negotiations with the local bandits, and Dame Beatrice returns to Kensington to gather evidence on the separate deaths of Caroline's husband and Clun's adversary. She sends Laura to Hombres Muertos (infant son Hamish in tow) to keep an eye on the activities of the inhabitants. Eventually Dame Beatrice returns to the island, compares notes with Laura, and--as the community has no policing organization or legal penalty for murder--sets out to unmask the killer and put into motion her unique version of justice.
The change of climate seems to do the old lady good. An exotic and suitably bizarre locale, a vividly-drawn, memorable cast of characters, a compelling, comprehensible plotline and a satisfying solution and resolution combine to make this one of Gladys Mitchell's best tales. I'm reminded yet again that Miss Mitchell's books are novels first and mystery puzzles second. (It may also be why this excellent writer doesn't receive the recognition or readership of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers.) There's humor, pathos and an aliveness within this book, from the gossiping teenage hotel maid to the ex-convict with a hard life, from the earthen cave-dwellers to Laura's gurgling baby boy. Once more Miss Mitchell gives a very generous portrait of an active, intelligent young boy (Clement Drashleigh); other memorable lads can be found throughout the Mitchell canon, notably the Caux twins in The Echoing Strangers and the Innes brothers in The Rising of the Moon. Overall I found that, once arrived on this colorful island, I was rather reluctant to leave it.
If the reader looks beyond the very entertaining story, there are some philosophical ideas raised here that may be rewarding to ponder. Subtly making her point, Gladys Mitchell suggests that the island's troglodyte community -- with its absence of laws and surplus of mummified ancestors -- is actually more civilized than the cultured English folk who visit it. Dame Beatrice dismisses the idea that the locals had a hand in the murder because they would never attempt the sacrilege of adding a body among the dead kings. And then there's this reply Dame Beatrice gives when the murderer asks, "I don't know how far you look upon human life as sacred?":
"I don't know, either. I suspect that we all imagine our own lives to be sacred, but I feel that most of us are not nearly as certain when it comes to the lives of other people. Color of skin, too, makes a difference; so does ideology. Let us by-pass the matter for the moment and argue it later."
The Twenty-Third Man is Mitchell at her best: assured, enthralling, complex but navigable. My only complaint -- a general one that doesn't detract from the pleasures of this book -- is that Dame Beatrice has, by the 1950s, become a subdued, if still formidable, personality. She no longer hurls objects at suspects (in fact, in this story she gets a fish thrown at her), doesn't dress as hideously, and refrains from poking people in the ribs. I'm still fond of Mrs. Croc at her most saurian, such as in early books like The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop and The Saltmarsh Murders. But even a tame crocodile can still bite, and though the sleuth is more mellow, those black eyes still shine brightly.