Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The Great Gladys

Between 1929 and her death, Gladys Mitchell (1901-1983) wrote 66 novels featuring one of the most bizarre detectives in the history of crime fiction, unconventional psychoanalyst Beatrice Lestrange Bradley.  For most of that period she also worked full time as a teacher at a girl's school, as well as publishing children's fiction under her own name and mysteries under the aliases Stephen Hockaby and Malcolm Torrie.

Mrs Bradley was first introduced in Speedy Death (1929).  Not originally intended to be the detective in the book, she managed to elbow the milquetoast male investigator out of the way through sheer force of personality.  And appearance.  This is how she's described:

Mrs Bradley was dry without being shrivelled, and birdlike without being pretty.  She reminded Alastair Bing, who was afraid of her, of the reconstruction of a pterodactyl he had once seen in a German museum.  There was the same inhuman malignity in her expression as in that of the defunct bird, and, like it, she had a cynical smirk about her mouth even when her face was in repose.  She possessed nasty, dry, claw-like hands and her arms, yellow and curiously repulsive, suggested the plucked wings of a fowl.

The elderly Mrs Bradley, often likened to whatever reptile Mitchell could think of, is the anti-Marple: an alarming character who scares suspects into giving up clues and who seems to pursue murderers more out of devilment than a desire to see justice done.

Mitchell's mysteries are always peculiar: Speedy Death begins with the death of a noted explorer rapidly revealed to be a female-to-male-transsexual (as today's terminology would have it), and ends with a twist that casts a shadow over all Mrs Bradley's subsequent investigations.  But the second Mrs Bradley book, The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop, sets the template for future investigations with what looks like a ritual murder on a druidic sactificial stone.  Elements of Paganism and witchcraft continue to crop up in Mitchell's books as a matter of course, and it's clearly an area she was well-versed in.  The titles of her books often reflect her interests: Dead Men's Morris, The Dancing Druids, A Hearse on May Day.  "I am not a witch," Mrs Bradley says in her first outing - but we're frequently led to wonder.

Philip Larkin called her "the Great Gladys"; Edmund Crispin, in a fit of alliteration, said she was "the most perfect and pellucid prose writer in crime fiction".  Rarely straightforward, occasionally downright frustrating, her books are fascinating - sometimes sly spoofs of crime fiction conventions, sometimes brilliant character-led novels where the whodunnit element's almost by-the-by, and sometimes just bloody great mystery novels.

Unlike some of her contemporaries - Allingham, Christie, Marsh, Sayers - Mitchell was practically forgotten within her own lifetime, only a tiny percentage of her output ever making it to paperback (meaning getting hold of many of them is a very pricey business).  It's odd, really - the 70s, with its fascination with all things occult, seems like it should've been the perfect time for her novels to be revived.  But though Mitchell kept on writing throughout the decade, mass (or even cult) appreciation never came.  Maybe her stories were just too odd; maybe Mrs Bradley just wasn't cuddly enough.

At the turn of the last century the BBC attempted a TV series based on the Mrs Bradley novels.  The adaptations had little to do with the books they were supposedly based on.  Diana Rigg was cast as a charming, distinctly unreptilian Mrs Bradley who had men practically throwing themselves at her (undoubtedly this idea would inspire a bloodcurdling cackle from the Mrs Bradley of the books).  The show rapidly died a death.  Useless as an adaptation of Mitchell's novels, it's quite fun if you imagine it as adventures of an elderly Emma Peel somehow cast back in time.

In the last few years a number of Mrs Bradley novels have been reissued, with more apparently on their way.  At last the Great Gladys is getting the recognition she deserves as a great crime novelist, but she also needs to be appreciated as a great writer of the truly bizarre.

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