Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Forked Plot: Brazen Tongue (1940), by Gladys Mitchell

If you like Poirot and Miss Marple, you'll love Mrs. Bradley.

             --Publisher's Blurb on the Vintage reprint of Brazen Tongue (1940), by Gladys Mitchell

....I think there were too many characters to keep up with in Brazen Tongue...By the end of the book I was confused as to who was the murderer.

              --Amazon.com customer review of Brazen Tongue (1940), by Gladys Mitchell

Gladys Mitchell
(1901-1983)
It is to be expected that publishers seeking to market the mysteries of Gladys Mitchell (1901-1983)--now more widely available to readers around the world that at any time, including during the author's own lifetime--would hail her as another Agatha Christie; but in actuality Mitchell was very much her own woman, with a beguiling voice distinct from not only that of Christie, but also the other most publicized Golden Age Crime Queens, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.

Bizarre
is a word often applied to Mitchell's sixty-six novels, published between 1929 to 1984, about the crime-solving capers of the unorthodox psychiatrist Mrs. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley. Exuberant is another. Inscrutable, others, less enchanted, have added. Mitchell can surpass Allingham at her most opaque.

"Mitchell's plotting style was uniquely hers," truly writes Nick Fuller in his introduction to Sleuth's Alchemy (2005), Crippen & Landru's collection of Gladys Mitchell short fiction. Occasionally, notes Nick, Mitchell's mystery "maze-building would get out of hand, and she would lose herself in the labyrinth, whereupon the critical Minotaur would gobble her up, and, like Icarus, she would come plummeting down to earth a fantastic wreck."

Even Mitchell's most coherently plotted mystery novels demand careful attention from readers--more, perhaps, than some may care to give to escape fiction.  Yet for those of us willing to make the commitment, Mitchell's best work is an absolute and abiding delight.

beware the critical Minotaur

Case in point: Brazen Tongue (1940), which Mitchell wrote in the early months of the "Phoney War" in Europe (the period in 1939-40 before the German attack on France and the low countries was launched). Like Nick Fuller, who deems this book one of Mitchell's three or four best Bradleys, I find it a superlative crime novel, with an interesting plot, sly humor, a memorable depiction of life in a provincial English town in the early days of the Second World War and the saurian Mrs. Bradley just as wonderfully outre as ever.

Although the puzzle, revolving around three suspicious but seemingly unrelated deaths occurring in the provincial town of Willington within a twelve hour period, is quite complex and somewhat non-linear in its elucidation, this is a true detective novel, with creative clueing and a relentless investigation by Mrs. Bradley.

the 2005 Minnow Press edition
While praising Brazen Tongue on his page about it at his Gladys Mitchell website, Jason Half somewhat faults what he terms the "meandering reveal" of the solution.

I think that Mitchell was going here for the Anthony Berkeley twist-style ending, seeing how many times she could shake the pieces in her crime-kaleidoscope to make a new picture of the solution.

I found it a tremendously fun, indeed bravura, performance; although others, like the Amazon reviewer quoted above, may well find it all too much (serious armchair sleuths should pay attention to the title of the book).

Half also criticizes Mitchell's brief depiction of a Jewish character, the wife of one Councillor Zacharias. Mitchell gives this character a stage lisp, a convention in English fiction going back to Charles Dickens' Fagin. Besides simply being rather silly, the exaggerated dialect  makes the character's testimony difficult to understand. In her work Mitchell had an unfortunate predilection for impenetrable dialect speech (another book where she indulges herself in this penchant to ill effect is Dead Men's Morris, with its acres and acres of "colorful" country dialect).

However, Councillor Zacharias and his wife are both portrayed quite sympathetically by Mitchell. There is no parallel here to dubious passages concerning Jews that we occasionally find in Golden Age mysteries by, for example, Christie, Sayers and Berkeley.

The fact that Mr. Zacharias is a town Councillor is indicative of the interesting social dimension to Brazen Tongue.  Despite the wild plot, the milieu depicted by Mitchell in Brazen Tongue seems more "real world" to me than that of many Golden Age mysteries of the country house and cozy village stereotype. Mitchell goes up and down the social ladder with ease, adeptly portraying people from the varied classes; and her sympathies, contra GA stereotype, often seem to lie with the less privileged (there is some feminist subtext as well). The novel makes an interesting companion piece to Henry Wade's brilliant The Dying Alderman (1930), published a decade earlier.


Happily, some of Mrs. Bradley's relatives also are on hand: niece Sally Lestrange, sister-in-law Selina Lestrange and son Sir Ferdinand Lestrange.  I always like reading about the twice--or thrice--married Mrs. Bradley's vast network of family relations (someone really should do a family tree).

We also get to see a little of Mrs. Bradley's chauffeur George and the measures he goes to, in the early days of rationing, to get petrol for his employer's investigative jaunts. Mrs. Bradley herself is as amiably highhanded as ever, and, appropriately enough, gets the novel's thought-provoking last line.

Mrs. Bradley on the case: the dust jacket of the first edition

Disappointingly for the author's Brazen fans, Gladys Mitchell in a 1976 interview with Barry Pike named Brazen Tongue as her most disliked novel, along with Printer's Error (1939). It seems odd that she chose two books published back-to-back, nearly forty years earlier. On the other hand, she named her three then most recent books, the mediocre A Javelin for Jonah (1974), Winking at the Brim (1974) and Convent on Styx (1975), as being among her favorites, so in my view this just goes to support the old adage that authors aren't necessarily the best judges of their best--or worst--work.

For years Brazen Tongue was one of the rarest Gladys Mitchell titles.  It was reprinted in an attractive hardcover edition in 2005 by Minnow Press, but this edition now is itself a collector's item. Fortunately the title now is available, like other Gladys Mitchell mysteries, in affordable formats in both the United States and the United Kingdom. It is pleasing to think that the company of devoted admirers of "the Great Gladys" has a chance of growing.

17 comments:

  1. Fortunately with detective stories you get a wide range of characters - you aren't stuck with dreary middle-class married couples with perfect taste. ;-)

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  2. Interesting review: I have a lot more Mitchells to read, and this does sound like a good one. I love the sociological aspect (like Christie) of seeing how the world changes via the books, and Phoney War books are usually intriguing for the obvious reason that the author really didn't know what would happen next...

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    1. Moira, I decided to review this one because, as per our conversation on your blog, I have been reading Jill Paton Walsh's Sayers continuation A Presumption of Death, which, as you know, is set in the same period. It is an interesting period. As Jason Hall points out her Sunset over Soho (1943) is much more somber.

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  3. I'll definitely read this one, you've made it sound very interesting. I've just finished "When Last I Died" and I was groping for a phrase that you have now provided for me: "meandering reveal". But you've also shed light on it for me by suggesting that she was going for the Anthony Berkeley "shaking of the kaleidoscope" style ending. I gather from her tribute site that the two were friends ... perhaps she was experimenting with a bit of his approach.
    Mitchell seems to be the Golden Age writer with the greatest degree of variability. It must have been very frustrating, as her publisher, to never quite be sure what you were going to get.

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    1. Michael Joseph stood by her most of her career (she started off with Gollancz, home to Sayers and Punshon and, early on, Connington). Her publication record in the U. S. is really spotty. It's obvious that she never really found her audience in the U. S. There's a funny essay by William Sarjeant postulating, more or less, that this is because Americans are, well, rather shallow and superficial! I think this is a bit unfair to us. Bill Pronzini, who is a keen critic, included her in his Gun in Cheek. It's the one time I disagree with him, but I can see why she doesn't appeal to some people. One has to be able to tolerate her eccentric narrative style. To be honest, I had to read her several times before I got to like her (I hated The Saltmarsh Murders, for example, the first time I read it; now I love it).

      One of the best Mitchells for first-timers, I think, would be St. Peter's Finger (1938), the convent setting making Mitchell more serious (her younger sister was nun). Speedy Death is the first, of course, and more linear than most of her books from the period, though still distinctly Mitchell. Death at the Opera is pretty straightforward, though some people will have issues with the ending.

      Someone said to me that with Mitchell they just "embrace the madness." There's something to that! She's one of my favorites, but far removed in most ways from another of my favorites, John Street (though actually he has the same interest in English geography that she does). And Julian Symons called them both humdrums! I'm surprised Mitchell disliked the books of Michael Innes, their work seems to me similar in some ways.

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  4. I've never heard of the Phoney War. I'm not exactly the ideal student for world history, but you'd think I would've encountered the term sometime in all my reading of 30s and 40s genre fiction. I have the Minnow Press edition but haven't read this one. Now I may add to my TBR pile for this year. I'm being very selective about which Mrs. Bradley books to read even though I own about 30 of them. Some I think I will never read. For example, Adders on the Heath and The Nodding Canaries are two of the worst rated among all the Mitchell experts whose judgment, being very much in line with my tastes, I trust implicitly.

    For those who don't know -- Amazon.com has released over 40 of Mitchell's books in eBook format. Some of those titles are also available as print books. Vintage, based in the UK, continues to reprint her books but those editions are not easily available in the US and have to be purchased via an online retailer or special ordered form a bookstore.

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    1. "I've never heard of the Phoney War. I'm not exactly the ideal student for world history, but you'd think I would've encountered the term sometime in all my reading of 30s and 40s genre fiction."

      It's the period when between the war declaration and the German attack in France, 1939-40. Nothing seemed to be happening on the Western Front, so it was called the Phoney War.

      Adders on the Heath is horrible, much worse than Nodding Canaries, imo. The American edition has a great Edward Gorey dust jacket however. I used to have a copy but sold it. Personally, I think about all the Mitchells up to the early 1950s are worth reading (I don't much like the pig farmer.local dialect book, Dead Men's Morris, or Here Comes a Chopper). After that Mitchell is spotty. A number of the big GA writers still producing seemed to suffer a similar decline about then.

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  5. John: The Phoney War was the period between October '39 and April '40. War had been declared, but there were no real major allied offensives against the Germans. In Britain the Blitz had not yet begun, and there was apparently the war did not feel 'real' to a lot of people.This changed after Churchill was voted as leader of the coalition, and the Germans invaded Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

    Mitchell is a fascinating author, although she is definitely wildly variable in quality. However, you can never call one of her books predictable. The unwary reader might think that she is somewhere on the cosy spectrum, but she is far, far too individual for that. The first book, SPEEDY DEATH, tackles such issues as transsexuality and lesbianism, which were hardly the usual topics one might expect to find in a whodunnit from 1929. I do wonder whether the unusual MItchell style comes from the fact that she never really need to write at all. She had a full time job, and the books seemed to have been an enjoyable sideline for her. She was probably not a huge seller, even at her height, so she probably had less to lose from experimentation than her peers did.

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    1. I've often thought how it was shame Julian Symons never read Speedy Death, apparently. It has all the sexual psychology he loved! Clever book. I imagine Mitchell appreciated the money the books brought in, but she seems to have followed her own muse. I imagine she would have sold more books had she written more like the Crime Queens. Could the introduction of Mrs. Bradley's assistant Laura have been an effort to provide a more "normal" character?

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  6. Yes, Laura appears as a supporting character in LAURELS ARE POISON (1942) but if I remember she doesn't really become a regular character until the end of the war. Whilst the books never become 'normal' whodunnits, they definitely tone down from the really wonderfully bizarre novels like THE SALTMARSH MURDERS and MYSTERY OF A BUTCHER'S SHOP from the previous decade. It could be that by then she had realised that she and Mrs Bradley were in the long haul together, and a sort of 'extended family' could make the books more agreeable (something like the Father Brown stories could only really work in the short form--a novel series character needs more depth).

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  7. Low and behold: the Critical Minotaur. (Gad - or, indeed, GAD - my youthful excesses!)

    Curt, terrific write-up of a terrific book. "Mitchell's best work is an absolute and abiding delight".

    You're right when you say that Mitchell's books often seem more 'real world'. The events in her books may be far-fetched, but her characters (except for the lunatics, eccentrics, and Satanists) are, by and large, as brisk, sensible and down to earth as her prose.

    Mitchell said that she couldn't read Innes and (from memory) Allingham. I wonder whether her dislike for Innes and Allingham may be because both I&A are rather affected, unrealistic and self-indulgent writers; Innes's early books are brilliant, but most of the post-WWII books are very minor, while Allingham's style becomes obscurantist, opaque and cluttered in the 40s. (I like More Work for the Undertaker, though.) Even when Mitchell's narrative was convoluted, her prose style was clear - "pellucid", Edmund Crispin called it.

    Mitchell's books up to 1953 (Merlin's Furlong) are all well worth reading. Faintley Speaking (1954) is GM at low ebb, which, from memory, was because she resumed teaching again at that time. (She wrote that she got bored without the constant stimulation of teaching, and used to do her writing in break.) The best of the later books are The Twenty-third Man, The Man Who Grew Tomatoes, My Bones Will Keep, Dance to Your Daddy, Late, Late in the Evening, and The Greenstone Griffins. (I remember liking The Croaking Raven, but others hated it.)

    There's a proto-Laura (Amazonian heroine) in Hangman's Curfew (1941), written the year before Laura appeared.

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  8. Hi, Nick, great to hear from you again, glad you liked the review. I would urge everyone who likes Gladys Mitchell to get Sleuth's Alchemy and read your introduction to that book, which is the best general piece on Mitchell of which I am aware.

    "Innes's early books are brilliant, but most of the post-WWII books are very minor, while Allingham's style becomes obscurantist, opaque and cluttered in the 40s. (I like More Work for the Undertaker, though.) Even when Mitchell's narrative was convoluted, her prose style was clear - "pellucid", Edmund Crispin called it."

    I think this is a fair point about Mitchell and clarifies my comment re: her and Allingham about opaqueness above. Mitchell's writing style remained clear, even when her plotting didn't quite, I agree.

    I'm planning this year on getting to the Mitchell I haven't yet read, Have Hangman's Curfew, must brush up on border ballads!

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  9. Thanks!

    Good luck with Hangman's Curfew: it's Mitchell's most impenetrable book. It bears out what we discussed above. The prose style is clear, and it's never difficult to follow the action: Mrs. Bradley and her Amazons shoot people and blow up cottages. But the plot is very tangled, and a lot of it doesn't make sense. It was praised at the time, though; the TLS thought it was Mitchell in parodic vein. (And on Amazon, it has three five-star reviews!)

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    1. Now that Mitchell has, finally, been deserving reprinted, I plan to look at some more of her books. I have read about two-thirds, I think, but missed some good ones.

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  10. Glad to hear from you again, Nick! Hope you will be active again in GAD forum and GAD online community to share your inputs.

    Lin

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