Chris B notes: "It’s becoming clearer at this stage that the imaginative and emotional heart of the novel is the bonding of the Three Musketeers [students Laura Menzies, Alice Boorman, and Kitty Trevelyan] through shared trials and teasing banter. The murder-mystery side of the story seems perfunctory and rather slow to develop: no proper corpse until the end of Chapter Eight, and it’s that of a mere bit-part character."
It's a fair assessment, and for as lively as characterization and dialogue (and the steady busyness of incidents and events) are in Laurels, I have never been gripped by its plot the way I have with some other Mrs Bradley books. It's not that the crimes are merely academic; I think it has to do with Mrs Bradley knowing how to proceed while the reader essentially needs to ride the river and trust its current, as Laura does.
Tracy concludes that "It takes until nearly halfway through the book before there is a suspicious death. Usually I am perfectly fine with a crime novel that takes a long time to set up the situation, but this time I was getting impatient. We know that Mrs. Bradley has been hired by the school to investigate Miss Murchan's disappearance and that the school has kept that incident quiet. Mrs. Bradley thinks that all the malicious pranks are meant to get rid of her. But why? and who [is behind them]?"
Indeed, those 'rags' do inspire interest and speculation in this section. Joyka comments that "spilling creosote deliberately is a messy stunt for sure, but cutting the hair of a student who is sleeping while recovering from surgery argues a more pathological tormentor." And that "proper corpse" Chris mentioned earlier takes the form of Mrs. Castle, an insolent cook whose body turns up down river from the college. Joyka mentions an intriguing, related anachronism: "Why would Cook have taken her corsets off before going into the river? Or did she?"
While Chris B is not able to say much about the lightly sketched character of Cook – he laments that "It’s a pity that Cook isn’t made more interesting before getting drowned" – he provides these excellent observations about the author's use of working-class characters in her mysteries:
"In Laurels the surprise is Lulu [a maid], who seems rather too obviously to have been parachuted in straight from Gone with the Wind (is there a Mitchell-clan in-joke here?). Her evidently stereotyped portrayal sets up a further surprise, though: after the night of the spooky noises, Mrs Bradley sends her away on the grounds that black Americans are well known to be terrified of ghosts; but when she returns, Lulu turns out to be proudly untroubled by superstition of any kind, and the otherwise infallible sleuth is proved wrong."
All of the readers noticed the strengthening bonds between the women students and, in particular, between Laura and Mrs Bradley. Joyka writes, "I think it is in these chapters that Laura and Mrs Bradley cement their lifelong friendship. Mrs B recognizes in Laura not a troublemaker like other school leaders but a unique, creative thinker. She is well aware of Laura’s tendency to jump into things before looking (the river swimming episode comes to mind [where Laura looks for clues by recreating Cook's downstream trajectory]) but Mrs B knows Laura has an intuitive sense of what is right and wrong. And Laura has christened Mrs B 'Mrs. Crocodile' or 'Mrs Croc', which she uses with love, not derision. She says, 'I like the old girl. I don’t care who hears me say so.' Later, Mrs Bradley returns the compliment, 'I like that child. She is intelligent.'"
Martyn Hobbs also notes the growing friendship, with Mrs Bradley appreciating Laura's "adventurous spirit and 'thirst for knowledge' and her linguistic gifts." Martyn goes on to note that in Chapter Eight, "Skirling and Groans," we learn that:
When Monday dawned, students in various degrees of anxiety and nervousness arose (many of them before the rising bell had rung in various Halls) and began to put ready the impedimenta (Laura’s carefully-chosen collective noun, much appreciated by Mrs Bradley when she heard it) for the day.
'So you see,' said Kitty, 'all you do – Hey, you, in the back row, stop pulling that girl's hair! No, dash it, you weren't doing up her slide. You were pulling her hair; I saw you. Oh, don't argue. You listen to me. Oh, hullo, Miss Topas. Take a seat, won't you… Now, you perishers – that is children – Look here, this is the point. No, not the decimal point, haddock! The point of my remarks. In other words, what I'm saying. Oh, all right, if you won't listen, you won't. Sit up, and we'll do some Pence Table. Don't know it? Don't know Pence Table? How does your father make out his betting slips, then? Come on, all of you. Twelve pence are one shilling. Eighteen Pence are half a dollar. No, I'm wrong at that.'
She got the class laughing. Then she rolled her eyes at Miss Topas and went back to multiplying decimals. Miss Topas gave her an average mark, prayed inaudibly for her soul, and passed out, highly appreciative, but, she feared, wrong-headedly so, of Kitty's capabilities as an instructor.
For these chapters, Martyn looked largely at language and word choice, and I am happy to share his observations here. Writes Martyn:
"A word on chapter headings. Some are clear but colourful ('High Jinks with a Tin-opener,' 'Revenge upon Goldilocks'), others are obscure ('Evidence of the Submerged Tenth'). This latter I long misread as the case of the submerged teeth. Now that could have made some sense, [but] actually, it was her corset, not her dentures, that had gone missing, which the wonderful Laura Menzies retrieves from the reeds. But the submerged ‘tenth’? That might refer to 'the supposed fraction of the population permanently living in poverty', a term used by the Salvationist William Booth (1890). Is there a financial motive behind all these shenanigans (a sort of rags to riches mystery)?"
Martyn provides this optimistic observation: "Some of the chapter headings only become clear further on into the story. Those 'promiscuous vessels' of Chapter Four were, in fact, the missing chamber pots, as Mrs Bradley explains in Chapter Six. Up to then I had imagined that that had somehow alluded to the naughty antics of the 'weaker vessels' (women).
And Joyka recognizes the author's wonderful synthesis of characterization and dialogue (and dialect), working in tandem. Joyka writes: "Another thing I love about Gladys Mitchell is her ability to describe the essence of a character in just a few sentences. The Ditch family is a reoccurring favorite of mine. They may be rural but they are not unintelligent, backwards people. Their comments are based on observations of the world in which they have lived for centuries. Here is Our Walt commenting on Miss Topas and her young man as they study their books and maps: "I say, our young Mam, do ee thenk their brains, like, ul stand et? Tis like so much witchcraft to I."
With readers wondering what witchcraft will come next – and with Martyn curious as to what the Flying Flacoris of Chapter Ten's title might be – visit us next week as we continue our discussion of Laurels Are Poison!