THE REMARKABLE GLADYS
AND HER WORKS:
A WRITER FROM THE GOLDEN AGE
OF DETECTIVE FICTION
Born in 1901, Gladys Mitchell (or Glad, as she frequently inscribed her books to friends) was a teacher for much of her life, despite the fact that she found considerable success as a writer. During her era – that is, the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction” – she was considered one of the “Big Three” women detective writers, along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. Yet now, thirty years after her death in 1983, unlike Christie and Sayers, she has almost lapsed into obscurity.
One can guess at the reasons for her comparative lack of fame – part of it is certainly that her books were not as widely available during her lifetime, and they were not kept in print after her death to the same extent as those of Agatha Christie, for example. As a prolific writer, there is a certain unevenness in her books – she herself describes Brazen Tongue as a “horrible book” – but this unevenness is certainly true of Christie also.
Mitchell was an early member of The Detection Club – along with G. K. Chesterton, Christie and Sayers, Anthony Berkeley (one of the founders of the Club), Freeman Wills Crofts, E.C. Bentley, John Rhode, and others – and she contributed to one of their first collaborative novels – Ask a Policeman.
Author Christopher Fowler in his blog on “forgotten authors” suggests that it was the way in which Mitchell pushed the boundaries of the detective fiction genre that kept her out of the canon. He states
“Mitchell was a schoolteacher who believed in the idea of the professional, progressive and somewhat Sapphic woman. Her title character was controversial and emancipated, and even considered murder justifiable if the occasion demanded. With such an outspoken heroine, Mitchell naturally made enemies. The Spectator described her as a “tiresome old trout” whose mannerisms were the most trying in detective fiction, but many adored her work. Her murder cases have ambiguous solutions, and an air of the supernatural is never entirely banished from them. Her plots are on the farthest side of credulity, but to worry about realism is to miss the fun of her storytelling. In Merlin’s Furlong, a necromantic don runs a coven of witches. In The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop, the victim is minced into sausages and hung from hooks.
“Ultimately, Christie remained safer and more controlled, while the complexity of Mitchell’s uber-eccentric mysteries got the better of her. She tested the constraints of the murder genre by pushing them to breaking point, and by surprising too much she often disappointed – therein lies the clue to her canonical absence. But a flawed gem can still sparkle.”
Once her first detective novel was accepted, Mitchell published at least one book almost every year for the rest of her long life (the only exception was 1931.) Although she wrote several children’s books under her own name, and also wrote historical novels and another detective series featuring an architect named Timothy Herring under the pseudonyms of Stephen Hockabie and Malcolm Torrie, respectively, it is the group of sixty-six novels featuring Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley (later Dame Bradley) which form the core of her work.
Her detective, Mrs Bradley, was a psychoanalyst and author herself with a broad range of interests and knowledge, reflecting the diversity of Mitchell’s own interests from archeology to witchcraft to early British history and athletics – and of course, the works of Freud, Fairly early in the series, Mrs Bradley obtains an assistant who is a devoted but also extremely independent secretary, Laura Menzies. Menzies is originally a young woman, but in over the years she becomes engaged (and later married) to Scotland Yard inspector Robert Gavin. (Considering Mitchell’s comments about love having no place in a mystery novel, it is interesting to note that Laura refers to her fiance by his last name, Gavin, while Mrs Bradley calls him “Dear Robert.”)
The first four titles in this series were published in London by Gollancz – the next two by Grayson – and the final sixty books, including her posthumous novels were all published by Michael Joseph. Only sixteen of her books were published in the US during her lifetime!
In the 1977 anthology Murder Ink, Gladys Mitchell contributed an essay entitled “Why Do People Read Detective Stories” and in it, she laid out some of the rules of the Golden Age –
“There are those among us who claim that the detective story is a form of escapist literature. Lovers of the genre will deny this, and they are right to do so, for the detective story addict is not content to sit back and enjoy what is called “a cosy read.” For full enjoyment of the story, the reader needs to use his brains. A problem has been set before him, and the true addict obtains pleasure from doing his best to solve it.
“When the Detection Club was formed in London, England, very strict rules were laid down for the members to follow. The first and greatest commandment was that every clue to the identity of the criminal must be placed fairly before the reader. This provided for a true and just battle of wits between reader and author, and this, I think, is one of the main reasons people prefer those detective stories that keep to the rules. . . .
“Of course, the detective story has changed over the years. Not for nothing did Dorothy L. Sayers call her last full-length Wimsey tale “a love story with detective interruptions.” Of old, the purists laid down the axiom that love had no place in a detective story and was nothing but an unnecessary and most undesirable effluent when introduced into those otherwise unpolluted waters. It confused the narrative and dammed the flow of pure reason, for love’s detractors (so far as the detective story is concerned) can rightly claim that there is nothing so unreasonable, so utterly illogical, as love. The unreasonable and the illogical have no place in a mystery.”
If you find yourself intrigued by Gladys Mitchell, the question then becomes where to start. The books do not need to be read chronologically to be enjoyed, but I would recommend starting with one or more of the earlier titles. Although Mrs Bradley is never “young” and thus does not age much, there are some changes from book to book, especially in Laura Menzies’s life. In addition, Mrs Bradley mellows a bit over the years, as Mitchell smooths out some of her rough edges.
Some of Mitchell’s best-known books are also the easiest to find. The Rising of the Moon, which Edmond Crispin called one of the dozen best crime novels, was originally published in 1945, but reissued in an inexpensive book club edition after Mitchell’s death. Another title reissued in 1985 and thus easy find is Watson’s Choice, which begins at a Sherlock Holmes themed house party. Barzun & Taylor in A Catalogue of Crime stated that in this book “Mrs Mitchell outdoes herself and produces a memorable plot, straightforward prose, and no nonsense. A honey of a book.” It is very possible that this is the first detective novel based on “Sherlockiania.” Many of her novels are now being issued in new trade paperback editions in the US, and they provide an easy way to try out her books – but some of the appeal of the original hardcover editions lie in the striking dust jacket art .
We recently acquired a significant collection of her works, varying in condition, price and edition, so if you are intrigued by this very off-beat writer, we have books to suit both collectors and readers. We have just begun the process of cataloguing them, so please let us know if there are any titles for which you might be searching.