UNCOFFIN'D CLAY (1980)
1980 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1981 St. Martin's Press (U.S.).
"Look, Mike darling, I want two men in the house until all this peculiar business is cleared up. Whoever heard, in these days, of people getting caught in man-traps and human bodies being put in deep freezes? It's horrible."
"In the days when man-traps were in common use, there would hardly have been deep freezes," said Innes, speaking lightly but looking at her rather anxiously, I thought. [Mary] stuck to what appeared to be her point.
"Dame Beatrice is a great responsibility while she stays here. There will have been all sorts of gossip about her. There always is in this place when people have visitors who stay longer than overnight. Her reputation as a Home Office psychiatrist is bound to be known all over the village by now. What is the murderer going to think, once the information about what and who she is gets around to him? You must stay, Mike, and help cope."
Between-books novelist Michael Lockerbie pays a welcome visit to his brother Innes and Innes' wife Mary in the quiet Dorset village of Strode Hillary. The quiet does not last, however: Michael interrupts a burglary at his brother's house, and historical items--including a doll and a metal man-trap--are stolen from the local museum. The criminal activity appears to continue when a wealthy sheikh who has taken up residence in Strode Hillary is shot at while talking outside with a land agent. Before long one of the sheikh's sons gets his leg caught in the man-trap, and the land agent, an unlikeable man named Winters, disappears.
Innes appeals to Dame Beatrice to look into these matters, and the psychiatrist begins her investigation by interviewing those suspected of the museum robbery. When the missing Mr. Winters resurfaces--he was buried under a half-submerged punt in a trout-stream, the museum doll pinned to his frozen body--Dame Beatrice deduces that the land agent, and not the sheikh, was the intended target of the potshot. But what of the other goings-on? The detective finds the answers, the novelist finds inspiration for his next book, and Strode Hillary returns to its quiet existence.
I do not like thee, Uncoffin'd Clay / The reason why I cannot say.... but I shall try. On the surface, this story has the merits of a typical Mitchell mystery: a sleepy country town, a literarily-minded narrator (just as in the previous entry, The Mudflats of the Dead, the hero here is a young male novelist), unique, bizarre details (e.g., bodies in deep freezes, Arabs in man-traps), and a uniform prose that keeps the storytelling simultaneously relaxed and focused. Yet I find, even after a recent rereading, that the story is uninspired and rather toothless and that, even though solutions and motives are presented coherently, Uncoffin'd Clay is very slight and very quickly forgotten.
Part of the problem (for me) lies in the off-stage presence and actions of nearly all the main story participants, be they victim, suspect, or murderer. The character of the sheikh -- a potentially exotic figure who has been grafted onto this familiar English village setting -- is never really used or explored, a missed opportunity made doubly frustrating when one realizes that the whole man-trap business is incidental at best anyway. We never have a chance to meet the doomed Winters or observe his actions; even the suspects remain vague, the reader's information and impressions being filtered largely through the hearsay of narrator Michael, or of his brother or sister-in-law. (This accounts for much of the book's ineffectiveness: we spend all of our time with Michael, Innes, and Mary, the only characters not actively involved in the plot. It's rather like telling a story using only a Greek Chorus: you can follow along, but it's not as exciting as watching the costumed, emoting actors at center stage.)
These criticisms stated, it is well worth noting that Uncoffin'd Clay is, after all, the 57th Mrs. Bradley mystery published, and that author Gladys Mitchell was most likely nearing 80 years old when she penned this book. Though prolificity and seniority do not entirely excuse a lackluster tale, these factors are nonetheless quite impressive when taken on their own. Mitchell's good (and great) books far outweigh the occasional spotty one, and the author's rate of success is nearly as impressive as that of Dame Beatrice herself.