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