THE WORSTED VIPER (1943)
1943 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1980 Severn House; 2009 Minnow Press.
"Fastened to the shaft of the propeller? And a sheath-knife, ma'am?" said the inspector, when Mrs. Bradley had returned on board the Dithyramb to South Walsham, and then had got in touch with him again. "Many thanks, ma'am. I only hope that will be Exhibit A at the trial, if we can land our fish. He's going to be a big one, by the sound of it. I've had some people here since you left this afternoon... yes, another murder. On board a houseboat, this time, and a very funny story attached... Our Mr. Bleriot is doing himself proud, if it is him. Another woman, too, and much the same type as the first one. Homicidal maniac, all right. Wonder what effect it will have on the holiday-makers? Scare 'em off, I should think."
Mrs. Bradley begins to receive some rather unflattering anonymous letters. It appears that someone is not happy with the psychoanalyst's participation in events which led to the arrest and trial of an influential sociopath named Bone. The body of a prostitute had been discovered in a South London basement, with a crucified, mummified toad, "an obscene and evil thing," lying nearby. Police suspicion fell upon Bone, a Satanist, and the man was tried and found guilty but insane. Some time later, a peculiar man named Bleriot seeks psychiatric counsel from Mrs. Bradley. The stranger reminds her of someone, and so the old lady readily obliges.
She next hears from ex-pupil Alice Boorman, who, along with college friends Kitty Trevelyan and Laura Menzies, is spending a houseboat holiday on the Norfolk Broads. The young ladies have had an adventure involving a mysterious, velvet-draped dinghy, an abandoned island cottage, and the lifeless body of a woman lying inside, a replica viper made from a worsted fabric pushed into the fatal knife wound. Detective-Inspector Pirberry welcomes Mrs. Bradley onto the case with as much enthusiasm as her former students, and her presence becomes necessary as more and more victims are discovered, toy vipers adorning their bodies.
Mrs. Bradley posits many theories about the killings to DI Pirberry and the imported Inspector Os, but two ideas run foremost: that a cabal of Satanists may be causing the murders, and that the bizarre activities of the criminals (including risking the disposal of a body onto a temporarily vacant houseboat and the kidnapping of Kitty--twice) are part of a very personal vendetta against the old sleuth. So Mrs. Bradley takes it upon herself to gather information by practicing voodoo on a susceptible suspect and infiltrating a black mass. A boat chase along the coastline brings this particularly active tale to an end, as the culprits meet their fate and Mrs. Bradley and company wrap up an unusually eventful vacation.
A Gladys Mitchell plot nearly always carries some amount of physical activity. Either the characters are trekking from one location to another, or the murderer is rather busy with his practice--burning, burying, beheading and moving victims around with the energy of an interior decorator--or the countryside must be combed in service of a body hunt or a nature expedition or both. In the stories of the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s, Mrs. Bradley is at her busiest. Plotlines are stuffed with happenings and several of the stories--like Here Comes a Chopper, Hangman's Curfew, The Dancing Druids, and this one--play more like a Buchan adventure thriller than a traditional mystery cosy (though they all have a murder to be solved, legitimizing their claim to the mystery camp). Whether you will like this mix of action and detection partially depends on your ability to overlook lapses in logic for the sake of propulsive storytelling.
As evidenced in Here Comes a Chopper and Death and the Maiden, to name two, the murderer's motivations for his many tricks on display in The Worsted Viper are left obscure. In each of these stories the guilty party goes to tremendous lengths to achieve an effect. But why? Mrs. Bradley often makes a casual inference to motive, and Miss Mitchell leaves it at that; we can take it or add on to it if we wish. In Viper, e.g., there's the interesting question of why the killer is taking such risks sneaking onto boathouses and private islands to deposit his victims. Why that boathouse? Why that piece of land? Mrs. Bradley suggests first that the killer knows he is being watched and wants the bodies found as quickly as possible. Perhaps his arrogance is meant to taunt the police. Later, she considers that the killer may be trying to clear a specific channel of the Broads by frightening away visitors, possibly in preparation for a smuggling venture. There's also a mention that the pattern may mask one particular target, with the other victims incidental. A lot of suggestions are made, but by book's end, amazingly, Miss Mitchell fails to deliver one definite, satisfactory answer.
Small criticism perhaps (but insurmountable for the many Golden Age mystery fans who need answers to reasonable questions like this). But there's a lot of this going on in The Worsted Viper, and maybe that's why the story moves at such a clip: to keep the reader pleasantly disoriented. Mitchell usually makes the most of her locations, and to this end Viper is a bit of a geographical tour de force, the waterways of the Norfolk Broads given more description than the villains who use it. It is also nice to see so many characters return from previous books, including students Kitty, Alice, and (future secretary) Laura; nephew Jonathan and wife Deborah Cloud; son and barrister Ferdinand Lestrange; and Detective-Inspector Pirberry, who will help Mrs. Bradley in her next outing, the complex Sunset over Soho.
The Worsted Viper reminded me of the later entry Three Quick and Five Dead (1968), another serial murder plot notable for its lack of suspects. But Gladys Mitchell's fine pacing and assured prose (in both books) makes them much more readable than they should be. There's also a fine sense of humor, especially present in Viper, which neatly counterbalances an otherwise grim theme. Miss Mitchell even allows her witchlike detective the pleasure of crashing a Satanic ritual. Disguised in an acolyte's robes, Mrs. Bradley improvises her own incantation, "jumbled, extraordinary, poetic nonsense which she intoned in her glorious voice, standing there like a sibyl beside the prostrate body of the priest." Blasphemy for someone, I do not doubt.