Caroline: There’s a tendency sometimes to think of detective fiction from the early twentieth century as “cosy”. In fact, in some countries the phrase “cozy mystery” even serves as a semi-official subgenre of crime writing — especially in America where it is defined against the so-called “hardboiled” stories of writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.
I don’t personally subscribe to the belief that there’s any such thing as a “cosy” murder mystery, since even the most bloodless and genteel whodunnit is still about the hunt for a violent killer. But it is certainly true that some writers from the golden age of detective fiction between the two world wars created characters who are a little more conventional than others. Miss Marple is always described as being pink and fluffy, and aside from her interest in crime and human nature, she’s keen on knitting, gardening and getting good bargains on high quality household linens. Whereas Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley, who first appeared in print in 1929, just two years later than St Mary Mead’s most famous resident, was according to her creator: “Dry without being shrivelled, and bird-like without being pretty”. Mrs Bradley’s interests are many and varied, but include garish silk dressing gowns and witchcraft.
Who was the woman who created this strange, reptilian sleuth, and then wrote 66 novels featuring her?
Today, we’re going to meet the Great Gladys.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Caroline: Gladys Mitchell’s long life spanned much of the twentieth century, and it’s incredible to think about all the change she witnessed. She was born in 1901 in Cowley and brought up in Oxfordshire. After the First World War in 1919 she went to the University of London and qualified as a teacher, focusing her studies mainly on history. From the age of 21 until her retirement in 1961, she worked as a teacher of history and games in a series of girls’ schools with barely a break, and during that same time she also wrote at least a book a year — mostly featuring Mrs Bradley, but she also produced five historical novels under the pseudonym of Stephen Hockaby and after her retirement, she debuted a second sleuth in a series of six books published under the name of Malcolm Torrie, which are about a crime solving architect named Timothy Herring. Oh, and she also wrote ten children’s book under her own name. I really don’t know where she found the time.
It’s for Mrs Bradley that she is principally remembered, though. She first appears in the 1929 novel Speedy Death, and she is immediately everything that a golden age sleuth isn’t supposed to be. She breaks lots of the “rules” of detective fiction in this book, including one pretty major one, and she’s rude and sarcastic as well as being highly perceptive and smart. Mitchell once described Mrs Bradley as having “the maternal anxiety of a boa-constrictor which watches its young attempting to devour their first donkey”, and I’ve always loved that summation. She looks like a pterodactyl, too, we’re frequently told, but she has a gorgeous mellifluous voice which charms everyone she speaks to. Mrs Bradley has been married three times, she’s a highly educated woman who works as a psychoanalyst and writes books herself, and she’s very interested in the weird and supernatural. Miss Marple, she is not.
But for fans of Mitchell and her foremost creation, it’s that difference that makes her books so appealing.
Lee Randall: They’re so funny. She is so funny. She just cracks me up. She’s got a very caustic wit and I really, really appreciate her wit. And I appreciate Mrs. Bradley’s rather sarcastic view of the world and the fact that nothing surprises her. And I also I happen to I’m a big fan of the Mitfords. And there’s a kind of writing from early in the 20th century that I know is not to everyone’s taste and very much to mine. It’s almost it’s almost very brittle. For example, in the beginning of Speedy Death, the characters burst into the scene and they start talking nine to the dozen in that particularly arch now archaic style. And I am a sucker for that stuff. I love that.
Caroline: This is Lee Randall, a writer based in Scotland and the programmer for Granite Noir, Aberdeen’s crime fiction festival. She came across Gladys Mitchell completely by chance when a package of reprinted novels landed on her desk at her newspaper job.
Lee: So I took the books home and they were sort of random sampling. I can’t even remember what the first three I read were. And I fell instantly in love with the language and with Mrs. Bradley, who I think is the most marvellous creation. And with Mitchell herself, I became intrigued. And I’m one of those annoying people who when I am intrigued by something I start swatting up on it. So I was combing the internet, trying to find out about Gladys Mitchell and trying to find out more about the series of books. And that led me down the Detection Club wormhole and all sorts of things started bubbling up
Caroline: I don’t want to take the edge off the shock you get from reading a Mrs Bradley book for the first time, because you should absolutely try one for yourself. But here’s a small taster of what you could expect from Speedy Death, for instance:
Lee: That book has everything it took. It’s a locked room, cosy crime, country house mystery with transvestitism and nymphomania and psychological shadows and light and then a rousing courtroom scene at the end. It’s got every single thing you could possibly have in the book. And it’s so brazen.
Caroline: Mitchell tackled topics in her books that most other golden age novelists avoided completely.
Lee: They’re not cosy in the slightest. All sorts of things go on. And she also the other person I often compare her to is Collette, because sometimes when I’m reading Collette, I have to put the book down and turn to the copyright page and say how this book feels so fresh, so modern. It’s talking about subject matter that we forget that that sex was not invented in 1963. People have always been smart and savvy and perverted and weird and intricate. Always, always, always. And Gladys Mitchell just put it all out there on the page.
Caroline: Mitchell’s work was popular during her long lifetime — she died in 1983 at the age of 82 — and she was an early member of the Detection Club, the association of crime writers who met regularly in London from the 1930s onwards and collaborated on novels and short stories. Alongside Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, she was hailed at this time as one of the “big three” women detective writers, even though she took quite a different, subversive approach to the form and never attained the global popularity that Christie certainly enjoyed. Mitchell said herself in an interview from 1976 that her books “never made much money” and that she never regretted keep up her teaching career. During a brief break between jobs, she said that she “missed the daily self-discipline and the irritations of classroom work”.
After Mitchell’s death, her work fell out of favour. Copies of her novels became somewhat difficult to track down, and without new reprints and an active literary estate, her stories weren’t finding new readers, although three novels that were published posthumously sold well. For a couple of decades, only the most ardent of fans were still reading and talking about Mrs Bradley. It’s astonishing how quickly a writer, even one with such a significant body of work, can disappear from the public view.
Gladys Mitchell never married and had no children, so she lacked future generations to inherit her copyrights and champion her work in the way that Agatha Christie’s descendants have done so, for instance. Mitchell is sometimes included in that group of lesbian or queer golden age writers that also includes Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey, although there isn’t any direct confirmation of this from her that I’m aware of. Mitchell’s fiction certainly exhibits a more liberal attitude to many aspects of sexuality than that of almost all her contemporaries, but that’s not definitive evidence of anything, nor is it particularly useful or kind to think of another person’s private life as a mystery to be solved.
What we do know is that Gladys Mitchell was a fiercely independent, active and self-sufficient woman. Certainly in the first few decades of her professional life this would have marked her out as extremely unusual. As I’ve talked about on previous episodes, the years after the First World War certainly saw a great opening up of opportunities, especially for educated middle class women, but her decision to live alone and split her talents between teaching and writing would still have marked Mitchell out.
Given her circumstances, and the brilliant strangeness of her fiction, it’s not that surprising, therefore, that her work declined in popularity after her death. But it didn’t languish in obscurity for long, as we’ll find out after the break.
Barry Bloomfield was a librarian and a poetry scholar. He died in 2002 and is probably best known today for his bibliography work on two major twentieth poets: WH Auden and Philip Larkin. For our purposes, though, the most important thing about Bloomfield was that he owned a near complete set of Gladys Mitchell books that he kept in his spare room. Bloomfield first became acquainted with Larkin when he began work on the bibliography of the poet’s work, and the two were soon fast friends, with Larkin often staying in that spare room where all the Mrs Bradley books were kept. Indeed, detective fiction seems to have been a key part of their relationship — Larkin’s nickname for Barry was “Inspector Bloomfield”, because of his diligent research on the bibliography. Books that Larkin gave his friend as gifts often had inscriptions that refer to this, with one reading “To Inspector Bloomfield – The start of a fresh investigation! Love Philip”.
Philip Larkin matters greatly to the story of Gladys Mitchell’s fall and then rise in the esteem of the reading public. He was an ardent fan of her work and believed that her books had value not just as detective fiction, but as novels in their own right too. (I personally don’t think that this is a good distinction to make — detective fiction is fiction too! — but I recognise that Larkin meant this as a huge compliment.) You get a sense of the depth of his regard for Mitchell’s work, and for detective fiction generally, in a review he wrote for the Observer newspaper of her 62nd novel, Here Lies Gloria Mundy. He goes deeply into where this book fits in the canon of Mitchell’s whodunnits, and even references Miss Murchison, a character who only appears in a significant way in one Sayers novel, Strong Poison! I think Philip Larkin and I might have got on well. I’ve linked the whole piece in the show notes for this episode, for it’s worth reading in full, but the most significant part for now is the conclusion. Larkin says: “The best thing about the book is that it will send me back to some of the earlier masterpieces… And I shall read them as novels. They ought to be known as such.”
Two years after this review was published, Larkin was offered and declined the position of Poet Laureate, the highest honour Britain has for a living poet, and a position that had previously been held by, among others, John Betjeman, Alfred Tennyson and William Wordsworth. For a literary figure of his stature to so wholeheartedly offer acclaim to a detective novelist in her ninth decade who was often seen by others as a relict of a twee period of crime fiction’s past was incredibly significant.
Larkin’s nickname for Mitchell — the Great Gladys — now adorns almost every reprinted version of her novels. I would hazard a guess that without this blurb, Mitchell’s work might have languished unrecognised by major publishers for even longer than it did. As an author myself, I know how much store the publishing industry sets by a good endorsement, and Mitchell got just about the best one there is. Here’s Lee Randall again, explaining how she reacted when those first Gladys Mitchell books landed on her desk:
Lee: One day out of a puffy envelope tumble the couple of vintage reprints. And I saw right away that not only with a classy looking packages, but there was a giant puff coat on the top that said “the Great Gladys” — Philip Larkin. And I thought, well, I am not really used to famous poets endorsing crime writers.
Caroline: You see? Those three words, the great Gladys, have extraordinary power. The BBC made a television series based on Gladys Mitchell’s books in the late 1990s called The Mrs Bradley Mysteries, with Diana Ring in the starring role, although they changed almost everything about the character — I mean, can you really imagine Rigg, a former Bond girl, ever being reptilian? They only made five episodes, and focused mostly on making the 1920s setting as glamorous as possible — it’s a kind of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries but made 15 years earlier. At the time that the show aired, only one of Mitchell’s books was still in print and available to buy as a paperback.
There are a few theories as to why Mrs Bradley didn’t endure in the way that Miss Marple did.
Lee: Part of me wonders if it was the audacity of creating a old, ugly, really smart female protagonist. I mean, Miss Bradley’s ugliness is stressed in every single book and her age, although it remained fixed through all eternity. Those around her grew up and grew older. She’s now about 57 in the first book. And. But she’s always described very much as a crone. And she’s like that. That figure from medieval literature, the wise crone who you really want to be on the right side of.
Caroline: Witchcraft and the supernatural play a really big part in the Mrs Bradley books, appearing in titles like Here Lies Gloria Mundy, The Devil at Saxon Wall and When Last I Died — and that’s just one of the ways in which she regularly breaks the rules of detective fiction. And as you might expect of someone who wrote getting on for a 100 books over her life, not all of Mitchell’s novels are very good. She freely acknowledged this herself, telling an interviewer once that “I know I have written some bad books, but I thought they were all right when I wrote them. I can’t bear to look at some of them now.” She singled out 1939’s Printer’s Error and 1940’s Brazen Tongue as two that she particularly disliked.
In 2005, a small US-based publisher of mystery fiction put out a volume of previously uncollected Gladys Mitchell short stories titled Sleuth’s Alchemy. It was surprisingly popular — testament both to the quality of Mitchell’s own work and to the general revival of interest in classic early twentieth century detective fiction that had been building since her death. Several other small scale reprints followed, and in 2009 Vintage started republishing her books in mass market paperback form again, in a distinctive triband cover style that recalls that of the original Penguins. Now, new readers are spoiled for choice when it comes to Gladys Mitchell novels. You can browse all the spines together in a bookshop, and allow yourself to be carried away by the promise of their titles. Should you begin with Nest of Vipers? Or maybe Here Comes a Chopper? Perhaps Hangman’s Curfew will do the trick for you, or Spotted Hemlock, Watson’s Choice or The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop. But wherever you begin, I can guarantee that your first Gladys Mitchell novel will be completely unlike any other whodunnit you’ve tried before.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. Many thanks to my guest, Lee Randall. You can find more information about her work as well as links to all the books and sources we mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/thegreatgladys. There, you can also read a full transcript.
Don’t forget that if you’d like to hear this podcast without advertising, as well as extra bonus episodes, you can become a paying supporter at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.
I’ll be back on 19 February with another episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: The Pale Horse.