ARRIVING IN STYLE
Laurels opens as Mrs Bradley, en route to Cartaret Training College to assume the role of warden or house-mistress, meets and provides a lift for Deborah Cloud, who will become the sub-warden for Athelstan Hall. This gives us another sketch of capable chauffeur George, who has accompanied Mrs B in other stories. Joyka writes, "I really like this characterization of him, 'a stocky, grave-faced, irresistibly respectable man, who spoke quietly, with firmness.'" She adds that "GM has been all over the place with her characterization of George in her books, from a chaser of skirts to a detective in his own right. I am happy to see him irresistibly respectable; he deserves it! It cannot be easy, carting Mrs B around, even in a Rolls Royce."
Tracy takes a brief break from her very enjoyable website Bitter Tea and Mystery and offers an excellent summary. "The first five chapters serve to introduce us to those main characters (I assume) and other characters at the college, instructors and students. We learn that Mrs Bradley was instrumental in Deborah's hiring and wanted her to work on a case with her. This is the disappearance of a Miss Murchan, the previous warden at Athelstan Hall. It is gradually revealed that Mrs. Bradley is an investigator with various degrees. Some of the students also know about this, because Mrs. Bradley is somewhat famous. Since I have read one Mrs. Bradley book (A Hearse on May-Day) and have read about the series generally, I knew what to expect, but I will say that if I was a complete novice to the book, with no background knowledge, I might have been somewhat confused."
It's a fair assessment to say that Laurels Are Poison is both busy and well-populated, as Gladys Mitchell creates the teaching college world – and introduces us to its many inhabitants – over just a few chapters, all the while spinning a plot involving benign and malignant rags, a student's mysterious death, and the disappearance of the prior warden. Added to this, Martyn Hobbs found the Shakespeare text allusions coming fast and fleet:
"If the first five chapters pass in a comic, allusive, highly-wrought whirl, the nine pages of the opening chapter are consummate. ‘Open, Sesame’ is its title: and like Prospero, GM magics up a place, a huge cast of characters, and a mystery to be resolved. I may have missed some literary allusions but the first gag is Mrs Bradley’s ‘So we meet slightly before Philippi.’ These were almost the words spoken by Caesar’s ghost to Brutus, just before his assassin’s fateful last battle… Death is associated with that place, and at this point only Mrs B knows anything about it."
Martyn continues, "Laura Menzies is a comic cornucopia of literary references. She dubs Mrs B and Deborah the First and Second Gravediggers (presumably via Hamlet), while Kitty, awaiting her interview, observes that the door through which students pass is ‘a bourne from which…no traveller returned.’ Death again. For Laura, Mrs B is also ‘the Third Witch’ (Macbeth this time, another play with an excess of corpses.) Macbeth pops up again in Laura’s Cockney ‘Is it a dagger I see before me, its ‘andle to my ‘and?’ and Mrs B’s description of the college atmosphere as ‘cribbed, cabined and confined’ … The auguries for the inmates of Cartaret College aren’t especially good!"
COLLEGES, FACT AND FICTION
Readers of the Mrs Bradley series will remember that this book introduces four recurring characters, and that one of them, the spirited, jocular, and intuitive Laura Menzies, will become the old lady's Watson for the rest of the series. Laura's Cartaret colleagues, future hair stylist Kitty Trevelyan and the unassuming but physically strong Alice Boorman, will also appear in books published in later decades. And Deborah Cloud, who is sent off to nephew Carey Lestrange's pig farm during a school break – Mrs B wants her out of harm's way – becomes engaged to Jonathan Bradley, whom she meets there. So it is all in the family, with a little of Mrs Bradley's omniscience as a matchmaker.
Martyn comments that "Laura, or Dog, is wonderful," and Joyka considers the personality that Gladys Mitchell provides: "Our first glimpse of Laura shows her to be a rule breaker, a lover of 'ragging,' eminently practical, but very shrewd. She alone has pegged Mrs B as doing a bit of detective work at Cartaret College." Assessing the others, Joyka adds, "Alice, a rule follower and serious student, nevertheless joins forces with Laura and Kitty. She is the steady hand that keeps Kitty and Laura grounded. And Kitty, who is too scatterbrained to remember there are rules, is actually, in my opinion, the glue that melds this unlikely group into lifelong friends. She is organized, creative, willing to lend a hand, and almost always in good humor. "
As warden, Mrs Bradley has to contend with a rash of practical jokes, some harmless and others showing concerted malice. Nick Fuller spots the parallels between this premise and Dorothy L. Sayers' 1935 mystery. Nick writes that "the obvious model is Gaudy Night, which also deals with a series of (non-murderous) crimes in a women’s institution." Nick observes that Laurels' all-female cast does not mean one should expect any stereotypical women-in-peril plotting: "Mitchell’s women tend to be intelligent, level-headed, and enthusiastic; she doesn’t dwell much on emotions or anxiety, in the way the American members of the Had-I-But-Known school would."
And about those rags: Joyka sums them up well. "The incidents seem to be two very clear types – typical ragging and more sinister and destructive events. Dancing around a chamber pot mountain versus a string tied across the doors of Mrs B's And Deborah’s rooms are clearly different minds at work. I am not sure where the vipers fall but destruction of the clothes of the twins is the much crueler incident."
Martyn recalls, "As somebody who once passed out in his first and only teaching practice lesson at a post grad college, I recognized and empathised with all of her mental aberrations and physical symptoms. I had the pounding in the ears and the descending mist (though mine became silently falling snowflakes that obliterated my vision). It was horror in that room. It was ghastly. It was murder!"
Thank you to everyone who contributed, and thanks to those who are reading along with us. Join us next week as the group discusses Chapters Six through Nine – the rags continue and the mystery of the missing Miss Murchan deepens!