Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Hearse on May-Day: Gladys Mitchell

I am a newbie to reading the books of Gladys Mitchell. I expressed my desire to sample the writings of this prolific vintage mystery author, and Moira at Clothes in Books graciously sent me a copy of one of her books, with skeletons dancing on the cover.


To summarize Gladys Mitchell's contribution to crime fiction, I will quote from this overview at The Golden Age of Detection Wiki:
Mitchell wrote at least one novel a year throughout her career. Her first novel (Speedy Death, 1929) introduced Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, a polymathic psychoanalyst and author who featured in a further 65 novels. Her strong views in social and philosophical issues reflected those of her author and her assistant, Laura Menzies, appears to have been something of a self-portrait of the young Mitchell.
Mitchell was an early member of the Detection Club along with G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers and throughout the 1930s was believed to be one of the "Big Three women detective writers", but she often challenged and mocked the conventions of the genre...
In addition to her 66 Mrs. Bradley novels Mitchell also used the pseudonyms of Stephen Hockaby (for a series of historical novels) and Malcolm Torrie (for a series of detective stories featuring an architect named Timothy Herring) and wrote ten children's books under her own name.
Spooky happenings (phenomena) appear to be fairly normal occurrences in Mrs Bradley stories by Gladys Mitchell. She often includes elements of witchcraft, the occult, or the supernatural. Yet the stories do not read like fantasies; they are fantastic, but firmly in the mystery genre. I don't think I am describing this very well, but this was my reaction to the book that I read: A Hearse on May-Day

This book is divided into two distinct parts. In the first part, Fenella Lestrange (niece of Mrs. Bradley) finds herself taking a detour to Seven Wells, a village she has never visited before. Once there, she gets involved in some very bizarre events. Her car breaks down even though it seemed to be running fine and she has to stay overnight. She is told repeatedly by the staff of the local inn that she should lock herself in her room and not stray outside, because it is Mayering Eve. Apparently this village is known for some very rambunctious behavior on that night. Of course, Fenella ignores their warnings and ventures out to find out what is going on. She encounters several very strange groups, some of them hostile, but does make her way safely back to her room.

Her car is repaired the next day, and she continues on her trip to her cousin's manor. She is travelling to their home to get married. The second half of the book covers Mrs Bradley's investigation into a murder that had occurred in Seven Wells shortly before Fenella's stay there, and whether the strange goings on that happened while she was there are related. This was not the best part of the book, as the progress was slow and at times made no sense to me.  Overall, however, I enjoyed this story, even though it was not my usual type of mystery read.

One of the themes in this book is May Day. Moira's post at Clothes in Books (May Day Special) and a post at Read Me Deadly (The Murderous Month of May) cover this in more detail. Also see reviews by Bev at My Reader's Block and Les Blatt at Classic Mysteries.

This book was published in 1972. Gladys Mitchell died in 1983 and the last Mrs. Bradley book was published in 1984. From what I read, her books were variable in quality (depending on the reader's perspective of course) and had a lot of variety in content and structure. I am looking forward to reading more of her output at various stages in her career. I have read that she was not published much in the US when she was alive; I guess that explains why I have not run into her books in earlier years and at the normal places I would pick them up (used book stores, before the internet) and book sales.

Another great resource on Gladys Mitchell's books and writing is Jason Hall's The Stone House, A Gladys Mitchell Tribute site. It has a great bibliography, biography, and essays galore. I have read enough very positive reviews of Mitchell's unusual Mrs. Bradley series to recommend this book and others from the series. I haven't even gone into the eccentricities of Mrs. Bradley's character in this post, because they were not that evident in this book. I will save that for a later review.

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Publisher:  Rue Morgue Press, 2012 (orig. pub. 1972)
Length:    158 pages
Format:    Trade Paperback
Series:     Mrs. Bradley Mystery
Setting:    small village, England
Genre:     mystery
Source:    a gift

17 comments:

  1. So funny I should read this because I just bought I think two of her books recently. They are also available in Kindle Unlimited (KU) that recently launched. I read about her work elsewhere though. Thanks for the links as well. I'll take a look at the articles. I don't mind phenomena if it's not heavy handed. For example, Colin Cotterill's books are full of phenomena like exorcisms, ghosts, but they are mysteries and are done well enough for me not to be bothered by those elements.

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    1. Keishon, I look forward to trying the Cotterill books because I want to see how he handles the supernatural elements. I will definitely be reading one this year because it is on a challenge ... one that I am determined to complete.

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  2. Tracy, great cover at least but not an author I'm interested in trying.

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    1. Not your kind of book at all, Col. And you have too many books, anyway. I am sure I will review some soon that you might be interested in.

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  3. Tracy, the cover looks awfully familiar, like I've read the book somewhere recently. I've heard about the writer but that's about all and I'll probably delve into one or two of her novels someday soon. Thanks for the review.

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    1. That should have read as "about the book."

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    2. I do think you would enjoy Mitchell's writing, Prashant.

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  4. Tracy - The Mrs. Bradley novels can indeed be a little unusual. They're not really 'typical' novels, if there even is such a thing. But they can be quirky and interesting, and Mrs. Bradley herself is certainly not a 'cookie-cutter' kind of sleuth. I'm glad you enjoyed this one for the most part.

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    1. Not typical at all, Margot. I like quirky, sometimes, but Mitchell does take time to get used to.

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  5. Glad you at least half-enjoyed this one Tracy, and proud to have added more skeletons to the collection. I think we had a similar reaction - I really enjoyed the first half, but got a bit fed up with the second half, which didn't seem to be going anywhere. I do enjoy Mitchell though - I'm not in any hurry to read them all, I'll just pick up one or two a year, and it'll take me a long time to run out!

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    1. It did take getting used to, Moira, and I kept talking back to the author and the characters, but I was never bored and it kept me reading, which for me is the final test of a good book.

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  6. To be honest, even if this book was glorious in it's greatness, I think the cover is so over the top, not in a good way, that I'm thinking I wouldn't pick this one up.

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    1. Ryan, parts of the story were as over the top as the cover. From what I read, her books are varied in content.

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  7. Really enjoyed your review TracyK as I am also about to re-encounter Mitchell after picking up a book of hers about 2 decades ago and not enjoying it - apparently the books really are that variable so you have to pick the right one!

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    1. And with so many to pick from, Sergio, it is hard to know which ones are good (and everyone has a different opinion on that). I will check some blogs and also I see John has some recommendations.

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  8. I think it's utterly hysterical that someone wouldn't read this book based on its less than attractive cover illustration. (BTW - I intensely dislike most of the Rue Morgue Press covers but that doesn't keep me from reading the books.) It's like not going into one of the best restaurants in town because you don't like the way the logo looks.

    I'm so excited that *every single one* of Mitchell's books are now available in digital format and many in both digital and paperback. I've been able to buy very affordable versions of her best books I've wanted to read for years. I can highly recommend the following which are all available in one form or both: Dance to Your Daddy, The Echoing Strangers (a superior book!), Here Comes a Chopper, Groaning Spinney, St. Peter's Finger, The Devil at the Saxon Wall. Most of these are incredibly scarce in their original editions and I've not been able to locate copies for over 15 years. But there's an end to all that now! Reviews of some Mitchell books are coming to my blog later this summer and one (Groaning Spinney) I'm saving for Christmas since that's when it's set.

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    1. I have been known to be influenced by a book cover, John, although usually for a book, not against. I agree, most of the Rue Morgue Press covers are not that appealing, but I am happy to have copies available of some vintage books.

      I did not know that all of Mitchell's books are available in eBook; that is good, although not my favorite way to read them.

      Thanks for the recommendations; I will be watching for your reviews.

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