WHEN LAST I DIED (1941)
1941 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1942 Knopf, 1985 Hogarth Crime, 2005 Rue Morgue Press, 2009 Vintage UK.
[From prosecuting counsel's memoirs:] "It was explained at the inquest that anonymous letters were the cause of her suicide, but it seems more likely that remorse had at last overtaken her, and that she had expiated her crime in the only manner which was in keeping with what she knew were her just deserts."
Mrs. Bradley shook her head in denial of this conclusion and returned the book to its owner when he and Ferdinand returned from golf. She announced that she was going to solve the mystery of Bella Foxley.
"Oh, mother! That wretched woman! After all, she's dead and buried. Why don't you leave well alone?" enquired her son.
"So said the ghost of Joan of Arc to George Bernard Shaw," Mrs. Bradley replied, with a chuckle.
Young Derek Lestrange, Mrs. Bradley's grandson, is in need of a scrapbook to complete a school assignment, and finds just the thing in the form of a heavy diary that belonged to an earlier tenant of the house his grandmother has rented. Asking permission to use the mostly blank book, the boy hands it over and, upon examination, Mrs. Bradley concludes that Derek has found the diary of Bella Foxley, a rather disagreeable woman who was accused of murdering her cousin some years ago. Intrigued, the detective reads through the journal entries and begins to investigate the events surrounding Bella's tragic life.
For starters, Bella Foxley's wealthy aunt died under very peculiar circumstances: she choked to death on grated carrot that Bella had prepared. But Aunt Flora was never particularly health-minded, and grated carrot seems an odd request. Around this time, two boys escaped from the reform institution where Bella Foxley worked, and rumor had it that she had a hand in their disappearance. Finally, the arrival of cousin Tom and his wife Muriel was doomed to tragedy: paranormal investigator Tom fell out of a top floor window of a supposedly haunted house, and he had to be hospitalized. He barely made a recovery when he fell out of the same window again, this time with fatal results. With no alibi and a possible motive that Tom was blackmailing her, Bella is tried for her cousin's death, but is acquitted and moves away to another village with her sister, Tessa. All goes well until one of the sisters is found drowned in a nearby pond.
Interviews with widow Muriel, housekeeper Miss Hodge, and the warden of the boys institution raise as many questions as they answer; Bella's diary carries a number of inconsistencies and mistakes; and the missing boys never resurface again, ever. Mrs. Bradley is convinced that answers lie within the haunted house, and, so thinking, she exhumes this case from the past by moving into the tragic place and persuading the dead to unburden their secrets to her.
Currently, 1941's When Last I Died sits at the very top of my list of personal favorite Gladys Mitchell books, a position where it is likely to remain as I continue my journey through the 66 Mrs. Bradley titles. Died edges past close competitors The Saltmarsh Murders and The Rising of the Moon for the top spot, and I believe it does so for this reason: it succeeds on more levels, and strikingly so, than any other single book in the canon. Everything blends beautifully, and no matter what attracts the reader to the story--the uncovering of old crimes, the dark, deadpan humor, the paranormal phenomena, the English village detail, the characters with secrets, even the indomitability of Mrs. Bradley herself--said reader can't help but be left satisfied with the expert execution and the very quality of these qualities.
The tone here is somber but alive; it is much closer in spirit to the clear-headed nostalgia of The Rising of the Moon than to the early comic satires of Miss Mitchell's first writing years. The few main characters are sharply drawn and refreshingly duplicitous; Mrs. Bradley is as wary as the reader when receiving their testimony. Perhaps best of all, this is one of those great Mitchell novels that untangles its many plot threads satisfactorily, believeably, and with a celebrated flourish. The story gains solid momentum as Mrs. Bradley builds her case and continues to dig for clues, and Gladys Mitchell incorporates the text of Bella Foxley's diary--and even a portion of prosecuting counsel's memoirs--into the pages of When Last I Died with great success (perhaps in homage to the style of Wilkie Collins?). All in all, an excellent detective story, with equally engrossing ghost story trappings.
Mrs. Bradley chronologists should mark the appearance of son Ferdinand Lestrange, his wife Caroline, and their son Derek, aged seven here. The detective herself is not as formidable as she has been previously portrayed, although her reptilian countenance occasionally sparks comment. She appears a bit maternal and even informal in this tale, perhaps owing to her grandson's presence. (Mrs. Bradley even allows herself to say that she plans to "pump" a witness for information, a verb choice that one would expect from her soon-to-be secretary Laura, but hardly from the beaky lips of her employer!) Finally, I quote a passage from When Last I Died to illustrate that the surprising Mrs. Croc's personality still carries--forgive the pun--an edge:
Mrs. Bradley took the bus along the Boscombe Road as far as Southborne. From there she walked over Hengistbury Head, was ferried across to Mudeford with a boat-load of other people, caught another bus into Christchurch, visited the Priory, inspected an antique dealer's stock, bought a large knife which she would not permit the dealer to wrap up, and caused a certain amount of sensation by lunching with the weapon beside her plate.
Countryside travel and impending violence! Thank you, Gladys Mitchell, for your wonderful, unequalled imagination.