Meanwhile, a skull is discovered in a seaside cave and presented to a bathing bishop and later to a temperamental artist named Wright, who is tasked with reconstructing a face out of clay from the found object; he reproduces the visage of the absent Rupert Sethleigh. But the inspirational skull, it appears, has been swapped out with a coconut, and something new has been added to a display in the local museum...
ON PACING AND POLICING
I agree with the readers who observe that these six chapters feel a bit plodding in pace and narrative. Kate from crossexaminingcrime remarks that, “to be honest, it feels like it has taken a long time to get going and I think this is because of a lack of lead character.” We are treated to the expository dialogue of two new officials, Superintendent Bidwell and Inspector Grindy, and it’s uncertain whether their appearance is a parody of the mystery genre or an earnest nod to convention. Either way, they are far less memorable than the suspects surrounding them.
Martyn Hobbs offers this take: “It starts well enough with the unlikely comic duo of the Bishop of Culminster (of the 'whimsical eyebrows') and the long-suffering insufferable Mrs. Harringay leading us into the grotesque Tale of the Head. But as the Plods take over and Inspector Grindy and the Superintendent conduct their plodding investigations, there is a slackening of energy and the style and interest drops. Gladys Mitchell seems to lose interest, too. She's fabulous at creating individual voices, but Grindy and the Superintendent blur into each other. One example: a little phrase like 'you see' could easily be part of somebody's idiolect. And in fact, on page 130 of the Vintage edition, it occurs four times. The only thing is, within six exchanges, the Superintendent says it twice... but so does Grindy! Maybe their sometimes literal investigative spadework has to be done for the plot, but with Mrs. Bradley offstage, GM seems to be going through the motions.”
ON MRS. BRADLEY (at the forefront this time)
Catherine Dilts: "Mrs. Bradley Is becoming a more interesting character. She’s clearly a self-confident woman, dressing in bright unusual clothing, and boldly taking charge of the murder case. If this novel was written as a send-up of Christie novels, then Mrs. Bradley is an anti-Miss Marple. There’s nothing subtle about Mrs. Bradley."
Kate: "Her entrance here reinforces in stereo the unconventional, outlandish and dangerous side to Mrs. Bradley, which I feel is justified by the novel’s end. The ornithological semantic field is continued from the description in Chapter 1 with Mrs Bradley being described as:
‘A small, shrivelled, bird-like woman, who might have been thirty-five and who might have been ninety, clad in a blue and sulphur jumper like the plumage of a macaw, came forward with that air of easy condescension which is usually achieved by royalty only, and fixed the vicar with an eagle eye.’
Joyka: "I think Mrs. Bradley has not quite gelled for Gladys Mitchell at this point. She seems mean at times, which is not the Mrs. Bradley we all know and love. Case in point:
'Impudence,' said Mrs Bradley severely, 'is the weapon of the very young. Chastisement'—she seized Felicity in a grip of iron and smacked her hard—'is the reply of the extremely old.'
ON THE SUPPORTING CAST
J.F. Norris connected Felicity Broome to a character that would become the psycho-analyst's secretary and companion in crime investigation in later novels: "Felicity reminds me of what Laura Menzies would develop into in the later books. She is in awe of Mrs. Bradley and follows instructions without hesitation. Mitchell mentions that Beatrice Bradley has the ability to get people to do her bidding without questioning her, as if to imply between the lines that there is a hypnotic power at work. Yet another instance of making it appear that Mrs. Bradley is a 'witch' of sorts."
Catherine Dilts is "still amused by Mrs. Bryce Harringay. 'It was a thousand pities to miss a chance of being really dramatic.' But concerning drama, no one seems especially distressed by the continued absence of Rupert Sethleigh. Characters are abandoning the theory that he arbitrarily left or disappeared, and are focusing on solving his presumed murder. Mrs. Harringay is most concerned about the shadow that might be cast on her son Aubrey’s social reputation if his cousin James is hanged for Rupert’s murder."
Erin Cordell writes, "I very much enjoy the story and the character developments. Jim has gone from a lazy lay-about to a sort of sympathetic incompetent, the inspector is being used to pull threads together, but my favorites are Mrs. Bradley and Mrs. Bryce Harringay. I loved their interaction, so British, so like a BBC mystery series scene."
And Joyka describes an affinity for Mitchell's handling of the clergy here: "I love the way Mrs. Bradley tweaks the religious men in [Butcher's Shop]. Both the bishop and the vicar seem to be nice men but just a little incompetent in their field. It is a theme that is repeated often in the GM books."
ON THE ARBITRARY AND THE EMOTIONAL
J.F. writes, "there is always an element of arbitrariness in Mitchell's mysteries. The stuffed trout and the initialed suitcase and the burial of both is a perfect example of the typical Mitchell gimmick. Aubrey intends to bury the suitcase, changes his mind, goes for the fish, comes back and suitcase is gone. So he buries the fish. Later the suitcase is found to be exactly where he intended to put it and inside is the fish. All supposedly baffling, meant to stall the investigation perhaps and distract the police with silly games. Of course it will all prove to have some significance in the end."
I will let Martyn Hobbs conclude this installment with his observations about Mitchell's exploration of her characters' emotions. Even as the author hands them a farce to perform, she still takes time to define their feelings. "What always fascinate are the sexual undercurrents in the story: whether it's the queasiness of Felicity's feelings toward the artist Wright, who 'stirred her blood in some queer, exciting, vaguely improper way' (hinting at DH Lawrence), or young Aubrey and his adolescent attraction to Felicity herself, 'fired by her loveliness, agonizingly conscious of the inadequacy of his words, but bashfully incapable of adding so much as a syllable to them.' Gladys Mitchell sees the skull beneath the skin. In fact, in this story, she sees a lot of it! But in all the comedy, grotesquerie and caricaturing, she sees the humanity of her characters, too; their passions, hungers and secret thoughts."
Thank you, contributors and readers, for making this online reading group a very agreeable and informative event! Until next week, when we look at Chapters 13 to 18. If you want to take part, please email your thoughts to me at Jason@jasonhalf.com by Monday, November 19. Happy reading!