Expected Death was the second Superintendent Mallett mystery by Mary Fitt and the one which introduced her series co-sleuth with Mallett, Dr. Dudley "Dodo" Fitzbrown, In these early Mallett and Fitzbrown mysteries, Fitt does more with the characterization of her two sleuths, particularly Fitzbrown. Mallett is a kindly county policeman, more on the uptake than he looks, with a bit of a Scottish burr. The setting, with its two frequently mentioned cities, Broxeter and Chode, resembles the West Midlands area whence the author's herself originally came. (She was born in Yardley in Worcestershire, near Birmingham.)
Dr. Fitzbrown is the son of a lately deceased doctor and he has taken over his father's practice. His earlier life comes up in a couple of later short stories, which were published in The Man Who Shot Birds in 1954. Here he is earnest, hard-working and even rather Socialistic. Despite this, he is friends with the young insouciant butterfly wards of Miss Elizabeth Vidor, another one of Fitts' splendid aristocratic old ladies who lives in a great country house and lords it (ladies it?) over her relations.
These young people are Elizabeth's nephew and niece, Geoffrey and Daffodil, and Orchid, the illegitimate daughter of a great friend of Elizabeth's and a Spanish grandee whom Elizabeth has adopted and made her principal heir. Geoffrey and Daffodil are the offspring (legitimate) of Elizabeth's brother and a Paris chorine, whom Elizabeth magnanimously welcomed back into the family after their parent's death. They stand to inherit from Elizabeth too, though not as much as much Orchid. Elizabeth is "one of the richest women in this country," as her bibulous lawyer, Roger Humphrey, tells her. Roger was greatly smitten with Elizabeth when they were younger but she repeatedly turned down his proposals of his marriage, and now, disappointed in love, he lives with his devoted unmarried sister, Rose.
|the French edition
When the story opens Orchid's eighteenth birthday--where she will be presented with the Vidor family's fabulous heirloom diamond necklace--is looming. Present as a houseguest is Jim Gale, a handsome, charming gent who seems very interested indeed in Orchid. Then there is Elizabeth's bespectacled secretary, Miss Cleet, and a chauffeur named Wilmott and a butler named Bowles and the odd maid or two. Elizabeth, who for some reason Orchid has nicknamed Timmy, has come up with this scheme to test Orchid's devotion by sending herself (with Miss Cleet's connivance) a box of chocolate creams that appear to have been tampered with--how will Orchid respond dutifully and protectfully, as a loving ward should?
Well, Orchid is proactive about the matter and passes the test in her guardian's eyes, but then, you guessed it, Elizabeth winds up dead the day after the party, fatally poisoned from chocolate creams! Who dun it?
Dodo himself becomes a suspect, and Mallett calls in Scotland Yard, because he is too close to the people in the case. It's a pleasure to see this obnoxious Scotland Yard investigator, Inspector Veall, get his comeuppance from Mallett and the amateur squad. The waspish police doctor, Jones, is really obnoxious in this one as well, really needling Dr. Fitzbrown. He appears periodically throughout the series, though his role is diminished in later books. Here Dr. Fitzbrown is really put through his paces, and you sympathize with his character, and with Mallett too. Dodo is a suspect because of course he had access to the poison, aconitine, and he proposed marriage to Orchid, even though he has been running about with Daffodil.
Orchid, a very willful and forceful type like her guardian Elizabeth, gets no fewer than three marriage proposals in this book. Does she actually accept one? She's the focal character and a strong one whose fate should engage readers. Indeed, the whole book is engaging and is another one you should read quickly, when you read it, because of the compelling story. (It's also another short book, probably about 65,000 words.)
I quite enjoyed it myself. Like Mary Fitt's other earlier Malletts, Expected Death is more thickly plotted, so should appeal more to puzzle purists than some of her Forties books. It's very much in the style of the Crime Queens Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. (People even get accused of being vulgar, which is worse, than, possibly, than being a murderer.)
If there's a weakness in the novel, it's that Fitt is is so true to her character's characters, as it were, that you may see the solution coming a bit of the way ahead. Puzzle purists used to say that was the danger in putting heavy emphasis on character in a detective novel. If death truly is just a game, so the theory goes, the author has to be careful not to tip her hand too soon. On the other hand, Expected Death is a most enjoyable mystery, highly recommended.
Some contemporary critics:
"A lively story which secures its effects with an admirable economy, it shows Mary Fitt at her best."--Sunday Times
"Uncommonly perceptive"--Sunday Post
"Delicacy and subtlety and with streaks of humour."--Daily Telegraph
"To be recommended to those who like intelligence and style in their crime stories."--Liverpool Daily News