Friday, 2 November 2012

Forgotten Book - Dead Men's Morris

Gladys Mitchell is a Golden Age writer who definitely falls into the category of "an acquired taste".I'm not sure I've wholly acquired that taste, and yet there are aspects of those of her books that I've read that I find admirable. Yet these invariably need to be balanced against various shortcomings. This is true of Dead Men's Morris,my Forgotten Book for today, which first appeared in 1936 and which is rated highly by a number of Mitchell devotees.

Mrs Bradley, Mitchell's detective, is in fine form here, cackling manically on her way to solving a rather elaborate mystery.The first victim dies (apparently from natural causes) early on Christmas Day in rural Oxfordshire, and the cast of characters includes not only a couple of Mrs Bradley's relatives but also assorted rustics, who speak in a dialect that becomes wearisome after a while (even the local police inspector speaks in dialect - over-egging the pudding, I felt).

Disparate ingredients are hurled into the mix - pig farming (the second victim is savaged by a boar), Morris dancing, a secret passage, a legend about a ghost, a couple of cryptic clues and a brief visit to the then premises of the Detection Club, of which Mrs Bradley was an honorary member, and to which Mitchell herself had recently been elected. There are even a couple of lawyers,one a victim, one a suspect, though neither bears the faintest resemblance to a real life solicitor. The most credible person in the entire story is a likeable young boy, and one can tell that Mitchell was fond of children..

What I like about Mitchell's writing is its sheer exuberance. The gusto with which she describes her detective's gleeful investigation is matched by the wackiness of the plot. Some people assume that Golden Age writers were prudish about sex, but here the sexual adventures of two young women play a part in the story; there are no graphic details of what they get up to, but even so...

If you haven't read Mitchell, she is definitely worth a look. Whether she is worth more than one look is a matter of personal taste. Some fans love her, Julian Symons (arguably the best crime critic of all, but someone who could be a severe judge) was utterly unimpressed. My own feeling is that, taken in small doses, Mitchell at her best is fun. And, though this book is characteristically eccentric, it does boast a very neat last line.


5 comments:

Geranium Cat said...

I was delighted to see you posting about this book, which I've had on the wish-list for a while. I wasn't sure, when I read When Last I Died, if I *would* acquire the taste, but I do like frivolous plots and have continued to enjoy her writing. Her children are very good and their prominence in the story is unusual and very pleasing. I suspect that anyone who enjoys Michael Innes at his best would also like Mitchell.

Puzzle Doctor said...

Still undecided on Mitchell, but it's been a while. I quite enjoyed The Saltmarsh Murders but have failed three times to get past page forty of Come Away, Death.

Maybe I need to give her another go...

John said...

I am 100% with you on that opening paragraph, Martin. I managed to acquire nearly a complete set of Gladys Mitchell books after reading THE RISING OF THE MOON because I thought it so quirky and strange and Gothic. I was hoping I'd love them all and as I work my way through her works I find I am frustrated and bored more often than engaged. Talk about hit and miss. For every one good Mitchell I read I find three that irritate me and two I never finish.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi GC, great to hear from you again. The comparison with Innes is a rather interesting one. I very much like his short stories, but have struggled with some of the novels.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Puzzle Doctor and John. She is rather infuriating, yet fascinating, isn't she?