Before we jump in, I want to acknowledge a couple contributors to this group conversation who have already reviewed the book on their blogs. Kate from Crossexaminingcrime has posted her recent Butcher's Shop critique, as well as a very enjoyable post about which detective you would want to investigate your crime, Mrs. Beatrice Lestrange Bradley or the less riotous but equally shrewd Miss Jane Marple.
Next, over at his site The Grandest Game in the World, you can find (among lots and lots of incredible reviews and academic analyses of GAD fiction titles) Nick Fuller's review of Gladys Mitchell's second published mystery.
In the previous post, I wanted to include Gladys Mitchell fan Mark Philpott's comments about the author's ability to draw in the reader of The Mystery of the Butcher's Shop in the opening chapters, but ran out of time (and energy). Mark writes, "Mitchell uses point of view skillfully to throw us into the plot's action. I feel like I’m also in the woods in darkness fumbling for a path. Mitchell keeps us hanging in suspense, forcing us to read on." Mark also notes that he is reminded of the television show Damages, which "uses a non-linear narrative, giving the viewer a little and then a little more in next episode."
Pavel Dmitrievich observes that "what strikes me is the attitude toward women, stated both by the men in the novel (gardener Willow telling his wife that she wasn't important enough to be murdered) and the aunt, Mrs. Harringay (admitting to being a 'subnormal specimen of humanity, belonging to the weaker sex'). Those comments stand out pretty starkly in today's human rights struggles. Those were the times, and the lines were not meant with the malignance with which they're encountered too frequently today. I can almost see Miss Mitchell with her tongue in her cheek as she writes them, though."
J.F. Norris from Pretty Sinister Books raises a great point regarding Mrs. Bradley's use of psychological observation as presented by her creator. It's an important criticism, and I think it's another reason – along with a merely casual, and not zealous, interest to deliver meticulously clued fair-play puzzles – that may keep fans of Golden Age Detective fiction from enjoying GM's mysteries.
"None of that follows logically at all. He could have decided to not tell he was married for any number of reasons! It’s all based on surmise and reveals a lot about Mitchell’s view of what she thinks is conventional and unconventional. In fact it’s a very stereotyped and prejudicial way of thinking of artists and the typical devil-may-care Bright Young Things that pop up in 1930s genre fiction. I wouldn’t want to be analyzed by Mrs. Bradley (or Gladys Mitchell either!) because I’d feel I was constantly being judged rather than being empathized with. That Mrs. Bradley thinks that she has “worked out logically” George Savile’s character is really off base. Or is Mitchell also lampooning this style of “detection” in detective fiction? I guess that could be true, too. Still, sometimes Mitchell's writing can be way too clever and I’m often irritated by Mrs. Bradley’s supercilious tone in summing up and dismissing people."
I will add to J.F.'s thoughts that there is, for me, the idea that Mrs. Bradley has always been rather otherworldly or omniscient as Gladys Mitchell writes her. It feels like the character's occupation as a psycho-analyst provides an excuse to support this all-knowing, or at least smarter-than-thou, depiction (which, I should confess, is one of the reasons why I'm attracted to the character). But the central criticism is a valid one: Mrs. Bradley's psycho-analysis demonstrated in the books is not so much detection but judgment based on the detective's beliefs and worldview. It's easy for the analyst to always be right if her creator shares her perspective and can confirm Mrs. Croc's findings by making them true on the page.
Mrs. Bradley is not the "rich" detective, she is the elderly, fearsome psycho-analyst. Her independence is one of spirit rather than one of entitlement, in my view.
But FJ correctly illustrates that her high-class status does indeed give her a freedom and agency in society that enables her to assume the role of objective investigator from a position of social power. I provide FJ's wise observations here:
"We must remember, after all, that Mrs. Bradley owns a clinic in London, a house in Kensington, and the Stone House itself. She employs five full-time servants at least (Henri, Célestine, Laura, Zena, and George), plus a mysterious caretaker to keep the Stone House aired at all times (who’s mentioned in a book in passing), in addition, presumably, to a similar person in Kensington and the small platoon of doctors and secretary that appears to man her clinic and to cope with everything she throws at them.
"We are afforded few glimpses of her residences, but we are told the Kensington house is “tall” and the Stone House has enough wings for Laura and Gavin to rent independent flats within both, away from Mrs. Bradley’s own quarters… In Three Quick and Five Dead, we are told of cooked breakfasts with sideboards and dressing up for dinner, which is very grand for the period in which the book was written. In The Croaking Raven, Mrs. Bradley rents a castle on a whim, just to please [godson] Hamish, and I remember her flying to Lascaux in similar circumstances in Faintley Speaking.
"In a way, I believe Mrs. Bradley’s wealth actually served to highlight her independence in the early years: wealth meant having a chauffeur, being mobile, not being bound by the dictates of society because she never had to depend on the approval of a husband. (Remember the old chestnut: if you are poor, you are crazy, if you are rich, you are eccentric.)"
FINAL THOUGHTS (on the first six chapters, anyway)
From Catherine Dilts: "Because Mitchell is often compared to her contemporary, Agatha Christie, I will note that this novel seems much faster paced than Christie novels. Grizzlier. Funnier, too. I'm having many laugh-out-loud moments. Compare the authors if you wish, but Mitchell is clearly in a league of her own."
Nick Fuller: "Butcher's Shop really must have been a breath of fresh air. Methodical, scientific detection was all the rage in Britain; the genre's kings were Freeman Wills Crofts and R. Austin Freeman, neither noted for their wit or playfulness. Only Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy L. Sayers, and H.C. Bailey were interested in humor and characterization, rather than in laboratory tests for arsenic or calculating how long it would take sea water to leave a box."
Martyn Hobbs: "I love the humor, the running gags (Grayling's gifts from clients), and her occasional literary and classical allusions ('What dread ecstatic dances, what strange and awful sights, what deeds of violence and cruelty' echoes Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn). Oh, and at the very end of the sixth chapter, happy coincidence, we finish with that image of Mrs. Bradley as some menacing, feral beast of prey. So far, a delight!"