TOM BROWN'S BODY (1949)
1949 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1953 Penguin paperback; 2005 Chivers Press; 2008 Rue Morgue Press; 2009 Vintage Press.
"Do you like jig-saw puzzles, I wonder, Mrs. Kay?"
"No, I've no patience with the things!" said Mrs. Kay, betraying by her tone, no less than by her words, first, that this was the literal truth, and, secondly, that her lack of patience applied equally to her visitor. "They're only fit for children! I wouldn't waste time on them myself."
"Yes, children do have patience," said Mrs. Bradley thoughtfully. "They must have, mustn't they? -- or they could never suffer grown-up people. Why do we call ourselves grown-up? We can only be so in body, most of us. Has it ever struck you, Mrs. Kay, that the majority of these so-called and self-styled grown-ups behave very, very much worse, more stupidly, more selfishly, than they would ever expect children to behave?"
"I've never thought about it," said Mrs. Kay, now very angry indeed, "And if you're trying to be insulting..."
"I'm not only trying, I'm succeeding," said Mrs. Bradley smoothly.
Mrs. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley pays a visit to the village of Spey while on a unique mission: she is searching for a book of spells once owned by Mary Toadflax, an ancestress and, by historical account, a witch. She makes the acquaintance of a strange old lady, Lecky Harries, who may or may not be able to help Mrs. Bradley on her quest. During her stay at Mrs. Harries' cottage, she observes some of the old mystic's visitors, among them a man buying black magic artifacts and two schoolboys who are promptly frightened off by the sight of the house's two witch-like inhabitants. The boys--and, it turns out, the man--belong to the local public school, an institution which gains notoriety a few days later when the drowned and strangled body of a housemaster is found lying in another instructor's garden.
The dead man is Mr. Gerald Conway, a singularly unlikeable staff member at Spey School. There is no lack of suspects, and a couple aspects point very specifically toward other teachers. Mr. Loveday, an absent-minded man who runs his house with his spinster sister, is the proud manager of a handsome Roman bath on the campus; he and the late history master exchanged terse words in the Common Room the day before the murder. Mr. Pearson, wood works master, was less than pleased to learn of Conway's engagement to his daughter. Mr. Poundbury was unhappy about Conway's dalliances with Mrs. Poundbury. And Mr. Kay, economics master, was the man dabbling in the dark arts, and it was his garden in which the deceased Mr. Conway was found. Mrs. Bradley soon befriends the headmaster, moves in with the Lovedays, and proceeds to interview everyone in her path.
When Mrs. Poundbury is struck on the head while backstage during a school performance of Lord Dunsany's A Night at the Inn--by a supernaturally tall Indian idol, no less--Mrs. Bradley decides to officially sort out this mystery. Sifting through the evidence offered by headmaster, faculty members, schoolboys, and the purblind Lecky Harries, she arrives at a satisfying solution, and still finds time to pursue her relative's elusive spell book.
I have come to realize that the Gladys Mitchell novels that strike me as her very best -- those titles I humbly designate with five stars -- come from two general camps. Certain of her books should be celebrated for their tour-de-force concepts and enjoyed for their successful accomplishments in style. When Last I Died, with its ingenious mirrored chapter structure and haunting, unique, otherworldly plot; The Saltmarsh Murders, a country village farce pitched perfectly as Golden Age satire; The Rising of the Moon, a somber, heartfelt summer story effectively related by 13-year old narrator Simon Innes; these are books that take literary risks, and manage to deliver fascinating, entertaining tales that just happen to wrap around compelling mystery plots. The second camp collects the author's exemplary "traditional" mystery books, those stories that act and react (more or less) in the manner dictated by countless body-in-the-library plotlines. Suspects are interviewed, clues are discovered, and eccentric sleuth points the accusing finger at someone or something (Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue") or several someones (Christie's Murder on the Orient Express). I place The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop, Death at the Opera and The Twenty-Third Man in this category, and happily add Tom Brown's Body to the list.
I should also say that both groups -- the innovative Mitchell tale and the traditional Mitchell mystery -- offer rich rewards for the reader, as I've found them full of intelligence, humor, clarity, and wit. Tom Brown's Body has all of these merits on display, and I regard it as Miss Mitchell's definitive school-set mystery story. (The title is a nod to the well-known British book about school life, Tom Brown's Schooldays.) Mrs. Bradley's dealings with witch Lecky Harries are great fun, and their final encounter is memorable and highly rewarding. I also especially enjoyed Miss Mitchell's generous portraits of her youthful supporting cast, such as the very young and earnest schoolboy Ingpen, who is so young he does not yet know that school should not be enjoyed. Master Ingpen's older character counterparts take the adolescent form of Skene and Merrys, two teens whose plans to sneak over to the dog track go hopelessly wrong, and whose dialogue is forever being appended with the exclamation, "you ass!" These portrayals have a ringing sense of truth to their characters; it is obvious here that school teacher Gladys Mitchell knows whereof she writes.
The mystery plot here is very nicely established and executed. Everything stays on track and there is no great confusion over who has done what that sometimes afflicts Miss Mitchell's more ambitious books. Tom Brown's Body finds our storyteller at the top of her form, managing to create a convincing, enthralling world populated with colorful, textured characters, a world where everything is infused with wit, style, and a most assured grace.