Friday 11 May 2018

Forgotten Book - The Saltmarsh Murders

It's fair to say that the exuberant detective fiction of Gladys Mitchell is an acquired taste. Julian Symons, one of the best judges of all, never acquired it, and it's easy to understand why. Her books, or at least those that I've read (she was very prolific, and I've focused on reading her work from the 30s and 40s) often seem rather over the top. But I get the impression that she was a fun person, and had fun writing her novels, and that in itself I find appealing.

The Saltmarsh Murders, first published in 1932, was her fourth novel featuring Mrs Bradley, who is fine form, cackling and screeching as she sets about solving a whole series of mysteries which centre around the little coastal resort of Saltmarsh. The story is narrated by Noel Wells, the local curate, but one thing is for sure. This is really not a re-run of The Murder at the Vicarage. In place of Christie's coolly assembled and crystal clear storyline, we have a whirl of activity that often threatens to descend into incoherence - though it just about avoids doing so.

The starting point is that Meg Tosstick, a young girl who works at the vicarage, has got pregnant. Rumours swirl as to who the father might be. The baby is born, but nobody sees it. Then Meg disappears, and in due course is discovered to have been murdered. But there is more, much more going on than that.

I found some of the comedy in the book quite effective; not for nothing is mention made by Noel Wells of P.G. Wodehouse. Some of it, however, has not stood the test of time, while the presence in the story of a black servant prompts some depressing racial stereotyping. And although the presentation of sexual repression might have seemed advanced in the 30s, it's now unappealing. However, if you can cope with all the downsides of Mitchell's eccentric approach to crime writing, this is a book that most of her devotees regard as one of her very best. Me? I'm glad I read it, but I prefer Christie, no question.

1 comment:

Rick Robinson said...

Martin, I agree with you assessment of the book, and yes, I prefer most of Christie. However I just read HALLOWE'EN PARTY and it was one of her weakest. I read this Mitchell as my first try of her, then read one other and that was enough.