--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
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|
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.