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Rediscovering the great Gladys Mitchell

By Gavin Pugh

If you have any interest in cosy crime stories then you’ll have heard of Agatha Christie, and even if you haven’t read her work I’m sure you’ll know the names of her most famous creations and seen Miss Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot in action. Both characters have captured the hearts of millions with one’s nosey gossipy ways and the other’s little grey cells. But when you know their mysteries inside out, who do you turn to next?

In 1998 the BBC aired The Mrs Bradley Mysteries staring Diana Rigg in the title role. Disappointingly they only produced the pilot and a four-part series, but the seed was sown and when Vintage re-released The Saltmarsh Murders and three other hand selected mysteries in 2010 I had to find out more about Mrs Bradley and her chauffeur George.

Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley is a rich three-time widow with lots of friends to visit. Diana Rigg played a more glamorous character than the gnarled figure we find in the books but the character shines regardless of medium. Mitchell’s detective is a a psychiatrist and well versed in using psychology as her choice of detective methodology.

In A Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop, a headless dismembered body is discovered but no suspect is immediately obvious. Throughout, Mrs Bradley works her way through the personalities of the various suspects before one character is singled out as someone who fits her theories, and the scene where she ‘outs’ the murderer shows the tension between ‘what if’ and ‘reality’ – something you don’t get in Christie’s works. Mitchell leaves you, at that point, unsure of whether Mrs Bradley was using it as an exercise or not. By the end you know that Mrs Bradley’s morals are definitely her own.

But Mitchell is comfortable in placing Mrs Bradley with various groups and showing her detective from different angles. In The Saltmarsh Murders she’s seen through the eyes of the curate of a sleepy village and in When Last I Died the narrator, who is outside the action, follows Mrs Bradley around and dips into her internal thoughts letting us know her more intimately as she looks into the mystery of a diary found by her grandson.

Described in The Guardian as ‘a kind of anti-Marple’, Mrs Bradley’s brand of amateur sleuthing is a reminder that there really was a Golden Age of detective fiction. Gladys Mitchell is as much a contender for the title ‘Queen of Crime’ as Christie or Sayers, as Mitchell has not only created a unique, and in some ways modern, detective: she also puts in twists and turns into her mysteries to keep the keenest of her readers on their toes.

If you love the crime fiction of Gladys Mitchell and Agatha Christie, make sure you explore the creations of Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen and Margery Allingham’s Campion, and other members of The Detection Club.

Love Classic Crime? Check out our Ten Best Classic Crime Books!

You can follow Gavin’s reviews on his blog.

Gavin Pugh

Gavin is a blogger, soon-to-be vlogger, and the host of the reading-related podcast An Unreliable Reader.

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