Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Longer Bodies

This is supposed to be a blog about books in Japanese; but since half the books I write about are detective stories, and since I've been too busy to finish the two Japanese books I'm reading at the moment, I thought I'd put up a review of an English detective story, The Longer Bodies (1930) by Gladys Mitchell.

Gladys Mitchell is a familiar name to detective story enthusiasts, but hardly known to general readers. In the late twentieth century, much like John Dickson Carr, a few of her books were sporadically reprinted, so that a well stocked bookshelf might have one or two of them. Currently quite a few are in print, including the one I'm writing about today. I've read six or seven of her books. Each was a little different from the others, in the kinds of things that she was trying to do in them. All of them had in common that they were identifiably classic puzzle detective stories, but at the same time very eccentric, with an emphasis on outrageous elements, often humorous, sometimes horrific.

There's not so much horror in The Longer Bodies and a lot of humour. Great-aunt Puddlequet is a rich old woman, who has been on more or less bad terms with her nearest relatives. Now, as she feels death approaching, she arranges to visit one of her nephews.

'Write to him, Companion, and say that I am going to visit him on Thursday. I want to have a look at his children.'

Godfrey Yeomond guffawed when he read the letter.

'She wants to see the children before she dies,' pronounced his wife. 'Poor thing. I expect she's very lonely and unhappy right out there in the country. Write back quickly, dear, and tell her how very welcome she is.'

'I'd better tip the boys the wink to be civil to her,' said Godfrey, pursuing a different train of thought. 'Her money's got to be left somewhere, and she was never one to be fond of cats.'

Mrs Puddlequet's search for an heir takes on more concrete form when she happens to see English athletes putting on a poor show at an athletics competion. Summoning her great-nephews from various families, she sets them to learn various sports. The one who wins for England will inherit her money. She has at great cost changed part of her estate to make a practice ground, and hired a German trainer. The contestants are followed by their sisters, so that the house is full of young people. The cousins do their best to humour their great-aunt, without seriously aiming for athletic excellence; but someone seems to be up to something more sinister. Great-aunt Puddlequet's rabbits are disappearing, and the javelin is found discarded, with blood on its point. Soon we have the first murderer, a local labourer known for drunkenness and domestic violence (which, since this is 1930, is regarded as something regrettable about which nothing can be done).

That progression, perhaps deliberately, resembles the classic horror and mystery progression, where we start with more disposable victims (in the author's opinion) and only gradually progress to those that the author takes seriously.

Mitchell's series detective, Mrs. Bradley, does solve the murders; but she only appears in the last third of the book. Until then the investigation is carried by an inspector from the local police, who seems reasonably intelligent up to the point where Mrs. Bradley appears, then suddenly turns into a rural Lestrade.

The story and characters are certainly interesting, particularly the ruthlessly selfish and imperious great-aunt. The working class characters tend to be an exercise in broad comedy; but Mitchell is at least aware that they have their own interests and allows them a reasonable amount of good judgement. The cousins were more of a problem for me. There are three families from different backgrounds; but my ears are not attuned to the subtle variatons within the upper reaches of the middle class that a reader in thirties might have found. So most of the cousins sounded much the same to me. The puzzle too was not really one of Mitchell's best. This may be partly my fault. There were a lot of complications in the middle part of the book, which obviously were going to have be shown as red herrings before the end. In those circumstances I tend not to really concentrate my mind on the problem until I can see the full hand; but by then I had lost track of too many details. In the end the definite proofs that Mrs. Bradley offers are only a couple of fairly weak indicators, that take up less than a page of the book.

All in all this is certainly an entertaining mystery; but it wouldn't be the first one I'd recommend, if I was trying to get someone to try Gladys Mitchell.

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