Monday, January 29, 2024

Skeleton in the Fireplace: A Note on the Old Lady and the Poor Child in Agatha Christie's Mystery Fiction and the Gruesome Discoveries in Baltimore in 1950


The discovery, a bloodcurdling one, made newspaper headlines in April 1950.

The previous year thirty-eight-year-old divorcee Marie Plage and her seventeen-year-old daughter Janie had moved into the small second-story apartment in a somewhat decrepit three-story row house at 1804 East Pratt Street in downtown Baltimore, Marie's native city.  Marie had recently parted ways with her husband of nearly two decades, Richard Plage of Rochester, New York, who had worked as a bus driver and cabbie.  To help support herself and her daughter, she now operated a sewing machine in a factory while Janie completed her senior year in high school.  

The mother and daughter had come to Baltimore from Rochester, New York and presumably taken the place on Pratt Street because Marie's young uncle, Fredrick Scheidegger, an electrical pump operator with the Baltimore Water Department, lived at the apartment below, along with his wife Catherine, a "janitress" at the Baltimore County Board of Education, and their daughter Marilyn, a teenager like Janie.  

the house on Pratt Street
The skeletons were found behind
 the fireplace on the second floor.
The woman's suicide  had taken
place on the ground floor.  
Were the two terrible events
somehow horribly linked?

On the night of April 12th, 1950, the ex-Mrs. Plage to her vexation inadvertently allowed her wedding ring to slip through a crack in the fireplace mantelpiece.  The ring then dropped into the fireplace hearth, which had been long concealed behind a sheet of tin. These sorts of frustrating everyday mishaps have happened to us all, but what happened next was decidedly, thankfully unusual.  

Prying the sheet loose so that she could recover her ring, Mrs. Plage discovered in the hearth an old bundle of cloth, which she proceeded to lift up in her arms and unwrap.  Was there some lost treasure hidden in the fireplace?  Not exactly that....

A few second later Marie was running down the stairs to her uncle's place, screaming at every panicked step.  After she had hysterically babbled her story out to Fred, he investigated upstairs.  Then he came back down and grimly rang up the police.  Fred informed the authorities that his niece had just discovered a cloth-wrapped skeleton in the concealed hearth of her fireplace, a skeleton the size of a human baby.

It got worse.  The investigating policemen, Sergeant Blair Overton and Patrolmen Edward Kelly and Charles Lambdin, discovered two more bundles in the fireplace, these both wrapped with newspapers, the one set dating from 1921, the other from 1923.  These two packets both contained skeletons as well.  Medical examiner Dr. William Kammer confirmed that all three sets of remains were human.  

the staircase at the house

The story hit the press around the country the next day: "Skeletons of Three Babies Found" ran the horrific headlines. 

Soon Baltimore police were investigating the matter of who had lived at the house at 1804 East Pratt Street in the early 1920s, the dated newspapers being their initial clue.  The residents in question turned out to be the family of George Schaub, a twice-married plumber who had died three years previously in 1947 at the age of 71.  

George Schaub had married first, a few years after the turn of the century, to Frances Plitt, who had died in 1914 at the age of thirty and was the mother of George's daughter Louisa and his eldest son, Charles.  

After France Schaub's untimely death in 1914 George the next year wed Anna Strauss, who in rapid succession between August 1916 and December 1919 bore him three additional sons: George, Albert and Frederick. That is three sons in a little over three years.   Doubtlessly Anna Strauss Schaub was a hard-pressed mother.  

The Schaubs moved into the Pratt Street place, which appears to have been Anna's former home, after their 1915 marriage.  Five years later Anna resided there with husband George, her teenage stepchildren Louisa, 15, and Charles, 14, and her own three sons, aged 3, 1 and one month.  Twelve years later, Louisa had married and moved away, but Charles, who worked as a delivery driver for the Sun newspaper, still resided at the place on Pratt Street, along with his father and stepmother and his three half-brothers.  

house in Pratt Street at time of
discovery of trio of skeletons

In December of that Depression year, 1932, less than three weeks before Christmas, young George Schaub, age sixteen, was awakened in his second-floor bedroom by the smell of gas fumes wafting up from the ground floor.  Going downstairs he discovered his mother unconscious on the sitting room couch with a piece of gas tubing, connected to the kitchen range, in her mouth.  

Anna Strauss Schaub was rushed to the hospital, but efforts to revive her proved futile.  The coroner in charge of the case pronounced a verdict of suicide.  Questioned by Sergeant Cornelius Murphy of the Baltimore police, young George Schaub declared he could offer no opinion as to why his mother would have committed suicide.  What the other family members said was not reported.

Anna' Schaub's self-destruction by asphyxiation made the news again in 1950, when the trio of bundled baby skeletons was discovered in the second floor fireplace of the former Schaub home, which had been divided into two apartments after the death in 1947 of George Schaub, Sr.  "Skeleton Case Inquiry Bares 1928 Suicide," the Baltimore Sun reported, missing the right date by four years.  

The paper's informant was Charles Schaub, who was still unmarried (he would die a bachelor at the age of sixty in 1966) and still employed by the Sun.  Charles confessed both that his father had frequently been an insufficient provider for his family and that his stepmother had made several previous attempts to kill herself, frequently complaining of her poor health.*  

*(You might have noticed, by the way, that virtually all of the actors in this true life tale were of German descent.  By 1914 people of German descent comprised nearly 100,000 of the inhabitants of Baltimore, one-fifth of the city's population.  Many of them were fluent in the German language.)  

With the report of Anna Strauss Schaub's long-ago depression and suicide, that, as they say, was that, at least as far as newspapers were concerned.  There appears to have been no additional reporting on the matter, leaving us to ask our own questions about the dreadful affair.  

Had Anna given additional births in the early Twenties and, suffering from postpartum psychosis, killed these infants?  Had she miscarried?  Were her husband and her elder stepchildren complicit in covering-up the tragedies?  But how could three infant deaths in one family in a Baltimore row house have been concealed so well and so long (nearly three decades)?  Yet if the killer was not Anna and the victims not additional children she had born (or miscarried), how on earth had the skeletons gotten there, hidden behind a tin screen in Schaub fireplace?  Whose children had they been, in that case?  Truly, a conundrum.

another look at the house on Pratt Street


The above accounts all were made in American newspapers between Apr. 12-14, 1950.  On April 15, however, the story about butchered babies in Baltimore was picked up in English newspapers, in a brief AP story, which was nothing more than a snippet.  It one paper it was seven items down in the Little Despatches column, right below news of American comedian's Jack Benny's coming appearance at the London Palladium (see below right).

Skeletons found--skeletons of three babies, dead for more than 25 years, were discovered behind a boarded-up fireplace in a house in Baltimore, U.S.A.  

covered-up for over 25 years

In 1950, Agatha Christie was making, according to authority John Curran, her final revisions to Sleeping Murder, a Miss Marple detective novel she originally composed a decade earlier and then thriftily set aside for publication after her death.  In that novel there occurs an eerie little incident which will repeat itself in two later Agatha Christie mysteries, The Pale Horse (1961) and By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968).  While visiting a care home married protagonists Giles and Gwenda encounter an old, white-haired lady holding a glass of milk, who leans toward Gwenda and asks: "Is it your poor child, my dear?...Behind the fireplace...."  

In The Pale Horse, a character recalls having encountered at a mental home a "nice elderly elderly lady...sipping a glass of milk," who leans forward and asks him: "Is it your poor child who's buried there behind the fireplace?"

Seven years later it's By the Pricking of My Thumbs and series character Tuppence Beresford, wife of Tommy, who at a care home is approached by Mrs. Lancaster, an old, white-haired lady with a glass of milk in her hand who says: "I see you're looking at the fireplace....was it your poor child?...That's where it is, you know.  Behind the fireplace."

Writers on Agatha Christie have often speculated on the recurrence of this unsettling incident in the Christie canon, asking whether we are to take it that this is the same elderly lady on each occasion or rather to assume that a forgetful Christie just did not remember that she had used this "bit" before.  In either case, the macabre notion of a baby's skeleton buried behind a fireplace (coupled with a seemingly sweet old woman making the ghoulish revelation) clearly captured Christie's imagination at some point.  

Could the Queen of Crime in April 1950 have read the AP snippet, quoted above, about skeletons of babies having been discovered behind a boarded-up fireplace in Baltimore?  The incident seems quite on point, aside from the brilliantly incongruous addition of the elderly lady, which contributes  another layer of creepiness to it.  

Of course anyone of Christie's generation would have known about "baby farms," those ghastly for-profit orphanages where unwanted babies were neglected and even murdered.  Concerning them you read accounts of skeletons dug up from unmarked graves and the like, but the detail of skeletons behind a fireplace seems very particular to the Baltimore case.  Also the fact that the deaths were long in the past.  

It would not be the first time Christie got ideas for her books from true crimes....

Saturday, January 27, 2024

"The crime is dementia": Postern of Fate (1973), by Agatha Christie

"It's the great thing you have to have in life.  Hope.  Remember?  I'm always full of hope."


"Ah, well--what fun it is, all the things one used to invent and believe in and play at."  


"You must try and remember names better."


"Oh, dear, I must think what I'm doing."


"It really is most exhausting writing everything down.  Every now and then I do get things a bit wrong, don't I?"


"Fancy you remembering that....

Yes, I know.  One's always surprised when one remembers something."

--Tommy and Tuppence Beresford in Agatha's Christie's Postern of Fate (1973)

Fragile and immensely aged, Agatha became, as the old sometimes do, more and more like the child she had been more than eighty years before.  Sometimes she was serene...gently leafing through one of her books....At other times she was eccentric, declaring, for instance, that today she would wear all her brooches, from the grandest diamonds to small ornaments children had sent her....

--excerpt from Janet Morgan's biography of Agatha Christie

Fifteen years ago linguistic researchers made news when they offered evidence from Agatha Christie's novels indicating that by the 1970s she likely was suffering from Alzheimer's Disease.  I don't know that they looked at Passenger to Frankfurt (1970) or Nemesis (1971), but they definitely did at Elephants Can Remember (1972) and Postern of Fate, Christie's final two novels, and they found the evidence of her loss of vocabulary in those books striking indeed. "It reveals an author responding to something she feels is happening but cannot do anything about," one researcher observed of the tellingly titled Elephants Can Remember. "It's almost as if...the crime is dementia."

I don't know, however, that any Christie fan needs to be an expert in linguistics or gerontology to know that there is something "off" with Christie's last two books.  Indeed, one can tell Christie's writing grip was slackening well before that.  If one looks at the Crime Queens last butcher's dozen of novels (discounting Curtain and Sleeping Murder, which were written long before they were published), we have:

The Final Thirteen Christies, 1961 to 1973 (rated on a five star scale; we really devoted Christie fans can add a 1/2 star)

The Pale Horse (nonseries, Ariadne Oliver) **** 

The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side (Marple) **1/2

The Clocks (Poirot, Ariadne Oliver mentioned) **1/2

A Caribbean Mystery (Marple) ***

At Bertram's Hotel (Marple) ****

Third Girl (Poirot) ***

Endless Night (nonseries) ****1/2

By the Pricking of My Thumbs (Tommy and Tuppence)**

Hallowe'en Party (Poirot) ***

Passenger to Frankfurt (nonseries) 1/2

Nemesis (Marple)***1/2

Elephants Can Remember (Poirot) *1/2

Postern of Fate(Tommy and Tuppence) *

These thirteen novels were published between 1961 and 1973.  Interestingly 1960 had been a gap year for Christie, who published Cat among the Pigeons in 1959, but had no novel, only a book of revised short fiction, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, in 1960.  This was the first time Christie had failed to produce a mystery novel for the year since 1947, when she again supplied a book of short fiction, The Labors of Hercules.

Still, The Pale Horse, which appeared in 1961 is a top flight in my opinion, and The Mirror Crack'd is well told and plotted, though the big clue is unoriginal and the mystery seemingly hinges on an event drawn from real life.  I enjoy The Clocks, but it has marked structural weaknesses, and the travelogue A Caribbean Mystery repeats a trick Christie had used earlier in another novel.  At Bertram's Hotel has an evocative setting but a dodgy plot to some degree, while Third Girl, where Poirot returned after three years, is not that well-plotted by Poirot's standard.  

Despite great virtues in my opinion, Endless Night is really a modern suspense novel with the minimalistic mystery plot taken from an earlier short story.  By the Pricking of My Thumbs, which brought back an elderly Tommy and Tuppence Beresford after many years, is enjoyable, but the plot is noticeably muddy and huddled at the end, which can also be said of the Poirot mystery Halloween Party, which does rather blether on with a too transparent mystery.  At some point in the Sixties Christie started using a Dictaphone and you can definitely tell by the time of Thumbs.  

This brings us to Seventies Christies, which with one exception are a pretty dire lot.  There is Passenger to Frankfurt, a nearly incoherent political thriller which I have never been able to finish (it's the only Christie mystery I have never completed), Nemesis, the one relative bright spot in the bunch even if it has narrative weaknesses, Elephants Can Remember, the last Poirot mystery Christie wrote and the most dully and transparently plotted of them and then, finally, Postern of Fate, which by any objective standard is an utter fiasco.  It's easy to believe its author was suffering from significant cognitive decline when she wrote it.  

But then we Christie fans are not objective, are we?  I went back and looked at contemporary reviews of Postern of Fate, which was published just over a half-century ago in late 1973, and they were, for the most part, pretty kind to the author.  By this time Christie was a decades long publishing institution and people loved and indulged her, like some beloved elderly family member.  The gift of a Christie for Christmas was not to be spurned, even if this case it was likely a grandmother's poorly knitted pair of socks.  

Probably the most widely seen notice of Postern of Fate in American newspapers was a syndicated piece by John Barkham, a sixty-five year old veteran book reviewer and a Pulitzer prize juror of two decades standing.  

Barkham's piece was tinged with nostalgia and a certain melancholy, for anyone reading Postern might well suspect that the sands of time were fast running out on the author's writing life.  

For those who look forward to these Christmas offerings [the annual "Christie for Christmas"], it's hard to think of Christmas without one, though inevitably the time will come when they cease to appear.  Agatha Christie is now in her 84th year, with something like 400 books to her credit....

Agatha Christie's ingenuity in devising plots and concealing the identity of her criminals is legendary.  I wish I could report that "Postern of Fate" was one of her better efforts, but the truth is that it lacks drama, movement and mystification.  Perhaps the old lady is slowing down.  She certainly does a great deal of looking back to the good old days in this exploit....The narrative becomes both an elucidation of a long-past crime and a journey into that past.  Running through the narrative is a deep longing for a time when people knew their places and behaved according to a strict code of manners....

"Postern of Fate" is not by any means the last "Christie for Christmas."  Even if the lady were to depart this vale of woe tomorrow (which heaven forfend), there are completed manuscripts to appear for our delectation.  "Postern of Fate" may not be top-notch Christie, but it's still better than most of today's routine whodunits.

Jan Zachry at the Lincoln Nebraska Journal Star was more remorseless in pointing out the book's flaws:

Because the puzzle took place so long ago, it never seems important for it to be solved....the villain appears only in the last chapters.  Therefore the book fails to build suspense and is boring.  To uncover the weak plot, the reader must wade through 13 chapters of pointless conversations, wordy descriptions of each meal and treatises on where the dog, Hannibal, likes to go on his walks.  

Even Zachary, however, found the characters of Tommy and Tuppence the saving graces of the book, declaring them "clearly exasperating, but lovable."  

Sheila M. Mitchell of the Cincinnati Enquirer was similarly forthright in pointing out the flaws in Postern of Fate, commenting: "I am sorry to say that this story builds to a very dull middle and ends with a thud.  It simply doesn't compare to any previous adventure of the Beresfords or for that matter, any suspense novel Agatha Christie has created."  

Christie and her husband Max
 in the garden
approaching the end of their lives.
She died in 1976, he two years later.
All these criticisms are true.  As I stated above, by any objective literary standard Postern of Fate is a terrible book.  Surely no one enjoys this book for its meandering, muddled plot.  Yet a lot of Christie fans, who have built up a long-term relationship with the author, enjoy it for the Christie nostalgia.  Me, I find it a poignant memoir of someone who is suffering from senile dementia, and knows it.  

A few words about the plot.  Tommy and Tuppence, now in their seventies (Tuppence I suppose is around 72, Tommy a bit older), have moved into another house in another provincial English town and are going through the old books left in the library.  They discover a code message in one of the books, written down by a promising fourteen-year-old boy (elsewhere it's said he was eleven) who died young, Alexander Parkinson (Parkinson's Disease?): "Mary Jordan did not die naturally.  It was one of us.  I think I know which one."  

This starts the old married couple off on a search into a mystery from the distant past, when there was an unnatural death, apparently a murder, at their house, The Laurels, in the years just before the outbreak of the Great War.  The rather desultory investigation consists mostly of Tuppence pottering around the house, though occasionally Tommy trots off to London for chats with his geriatric cronies in intelligence.  There are also visitors, like old jobbing gardener Isaac Bodlicott (who is even more aged than Tommy and Tuppence), who know things about the area and its past, though they usually can't express themselves that coherently.  It's a slow march in a long book by Christie's standards.  

I actually remember reading Postern of Fate in a treehouse back in 1978, when I was twelve years old, five years after it was published.  How's that for nostalgia?  Agatha Christie had been dead for just two years.  My copy was the first American paperback edition, with an ad for Bantam mysteries in the back.  You could check the books you wanted, cut out the "handy coupon," and send them a check and get your books direct from the publisher. No Amazon back then!  I got my parents to do this on several occasions.  

There's also an ad insert for the Detective Book Club, for books by Christie, Gardner, Eberhart, Simeon, Francis, Queen, Creasey, Marric: Eleven mysteries for one dollar!

I don't actually remember hating Postern of Fate when I first read it and there are, to be sure, things in it to entertain a youngster who likes mysteries.  Discovering an encoded clue in an old book in an old house, it's like a Nancy Drew mystery.  But to an adult, the book just drags on and on with endless, dull,  meandering, repetitive conversations.  I understand that the house and town are stand-ins for Christie's old family home Ashfield and her native town of Torquay and a lot of Christie fans enjoy deciphering the references, but I can only get so much out of that myself.  

Christie, however, obviously must have derived great enjoyment from living over her childhood again with this book.  When you have dementia, you forget so much of the present, even things you did a few hours earlier, but often you remember your distant past.  You derive comfort from remembering things from your past, when so much else is vacating from your mind.  

Similarly Tommy and Tuppence and Tommy's elderly intelligence cronies enjoy reminiscing about T&T's espionage doings and crime-solving exploits in the past.  There's a bit about The Secret Adversary and Partners in Crime, but it's mostly N or M?  This is nice up to a point but it eventually gets wearisome. (I never want to hear the words goosey, goosey, gander again.)  But for the characters the past is comforting, the present confusing.  

Christie's muddled political thriller from three years earlier, Passenger to Frankfurt, is referenced several times too, and as a political document, if you take it seriously, Postern is on the same indecipherable page as Frankfurt.  In Postern, the past case concerns German spies from the Edwardian era and a naval treaty (submarine plans, like in the Thirties Christie novelette), so you might be asking yourself, what does this have to do with anything in the present day?  But it seems that there is group of fascist types still hanging around the area, still plotting, Boys from Brazil like, to foment chaos and destruction in the world and quite willing to eliminate anyone getting in the way of their plans, including this nosy pair of oldsters.  

Basically, it's the Christie plot from her Twenties thriller The Big Four all over again, except we have a Tommy and Tuppence instead of Poirot and Hastings and a fascist cell instead of a sinister Chinaman and a ruthless American millionaire.  How much did Christie actually believe in this stuff?  Tommy's doddering oldsters in intelligence, Mr. Robinson and Colonel Pikeaway, certainly seem to take it all seriously. although they cannot express themselves very clearly.  Here's the Colonel:

What is going on?

There have been secrets, you know....I'm not telling you anything exact, because I don't know anything exact.  The trouble with me is that nobody really knows.....We think we know it all, but do we?  Do we know anything about germ warfare?  Do we know everything about gases, about means of inducing pollution?  The chemists have their secrets, medical science has its secrets, the services have their secrets, the navy, the air force--all sorts of things.  And they're not all in the present....But we've got to find out a little more than we do because things are happening all the time.  In different countries, in different places, in wars, in Vietnam, in guerilla wars, in Jordan, in Israel, even in the uninvolved countries.  In Sweden and Switzerland--anywhere. There are these things and we want clues to them.... 

To be candid this doesn't make enjoyable, or even easy, reading, but it seems to reflect the hazy thinking of a lot of people today, who feel that there are insidious forces pulling strings behind the scenes (like "Q") and that we don't really know what is going on.  (What about covid?  What about UFOs?  What about BLM?  What about Taylor Swift?)  In her dotage, Christie seems to have felt similarly confused, and very uneasy about it.  How much more pleasant to take little nostalgic trips down one's own personal lane of memories--while one could still find the off ramp.

I think Christie was quite aware of her own confusion.  She was a great writer for goodness sake!  Look at those quotations above, at the top of this article.  Her characters keep talking about how hard it is to remember anything, how everything is confusing and difficult.  So many speeches start off with I mean or I wonder, as character struggle to express themselves coherently.  And it's not just the old people who cannot speak succinctly and cogently, it's everyone.  Here is an ostensibly physically vigorous young man named Angus Crispin (!) on old Isaac, after the latter gets bumped off, offstage, by the baddies, so that we can have a present-day murder to try and give the narrative some urgency (it doesn't work):

Isaac....knew things.  Old stories, as you say, but he had a memory.  And they talk it over.  Yes, in these clubs for old people, they talk things over.  Tall stories--some of them not true, some of them based in fact.  Yes, it's all very interesting.

I really think this book deliberately reflects the author's own struggle with dementia.  Her husband later said the book almost killed her, and afterward she was unable ever to write another.  Christie lived just a little over two years after the publication of Postern of Fate.  

So for me all this makes Postern of Fate not a good book--nothing could make it that--but rather an almost unbearably poignant one.  That quotation at the top that comes from the book, about hope, that's like something my Dad used to say about Heaven and the existence of God.  So many people have gone what Christie went through, but they never wrote about the sad experience like the Queen of Crime did in Postern of Fate.  So I'm glad she struggled and lived to give us this book.  I suppose the story really should have ended with Tuppence happily pottering around the back garden with the rocking horse Mathilde, holding an imaginary conversation about a confusing mystery concerning Mary Jordan with her long-deceased husband Tommy, but perhaps that would have been too much verisimilitude for the fans, like the video to Elvis Costello's 1989 hit song Veronica.  

Friday, January 5, 2024

Meow! Murder of a Mouse (1939), by Mary Fitt

"My own theory is, it was a passing tramp."--Derry Harringdon in Murder of a Mouse (1939)

I meant to post a review of Mary Fitt's Murder of a Mouse (1939) before the new year, so I could have at least have 30 blog entries for the year (still a pretty pitiful number by my onetime proud standard), but I didn't make it.  But after my Dad's death I wasn't sure I would ever be blogging again, to be honest, so I'm doing what I can.  Some people thought that Farjeon post from me last year sounded valedictory, and it might have been.  

But here it is is, later rather than never, my review of Murder of a Mouse.  

Murder of a Mouse was the fourth Supt. Mallett mystery, published before Death Starts a Rumor (1940) and after Sky-Rocket (1938), Expected Death (1938) and Death at Dancing Stones (1939).  It's on the same level as the other two early ones I have favorably reviewed here recently, Expected Death and Rumour: a straightforward country house manners mystery with true detection and an emphasis on character.  

The title Murder of a Mouse has a double meaning.  On the one hand there's middle-aged country spinster Margaret "Mouse" Harringdon, who, yes, does indeed get murdered, but Mouse also owns a cat who brings in a dead mouse one night during the course of the tale.  So maybe this is a cat mystery? 

The cat does factor into things, but only in a minor way.  A couple of people get drugged, likewise the cat.  (This is the third time Fitt, perhaps overfond of the device, has used the drugging gambit.)  

When the cat back, the 
the mouse gets whacked.
We know who killed the mouse, 
but who killed Mouse?

Fitt's publisher, Ivor Nicholson, liked the cat motif so much, they used it in advertising and on the jacket of the next Mary Fitt novel to symbolize "cultured crime."  And, sure enough, the blurb on my copy of Mouse tells us that "Mary Fitt is a mistress of detection, but she is a novelist as well, and in Murder of a Mouse she has given a brilliant exposition of both crafts."  

I have to object a little at the idea that a detective novelist may not actually be a novelist, but I know what they mean.  In many of her later novels Mary Fitt is more interested in character studies, but in her early Malletts I think the focus unquestionably is much more strongly on detection, albeit with pretty well-developed characters and emotional entanglements.  

Hence in Mouse we have a wealthy, unloved middle-aged spinster who manages to alienate a goodly number of people in the first part of the novel and then get bumped off.  It's the classic Golden Age mystery scenario.  

Who are the suspects in her death?  Well, heading the list, there's her improvident brother, Harvey Harringdon, who actually owns the Hall next door, but does not actually have the money to keep it up and needs help for that from Mouse, which the latter is refusing to provide.  

Then there's Harvey's daughter Derry, who is supposed to be her Aunt Mouse's heir, though Mouse is planning on making a new will in favor of the handsome, young concert pianist, Francis Hewson, who has been living with (and off) her.  It seems that she plans to marry the devilishly attractive ivories tickler, despite what the neighbors will say.  

Derry herself is supposed to marry Dick Stanton-Pell, son of Major Stanton-Pell and his much younger ex-chorus girl wife, Marcia, but she's now talking about a career in medicine, like her friend, the new lady doctor, Pamela Cloud, and her papa needs help from Mouse as well to provide for that education, another costly thing at which Mouse is balking.  

Marcia Stanton-Pell, Dick's young stepmother--she's closer to his age than she is to her husband's--is a spiteful thing, a splendidly catty lady if you will, and she is suing the silly wife of the other village medico, Dr. Stokes, for slandering her about her chorus girl past.  Mouse was the only other witness to what Mrs. Stokes said about Marcia, and when Dr. Stokes calls upon her to ask her not to testify (honestly) about what his silly wife said, Mouse refuses, leaving the furious doctor threatening her that she will get what's coming to her.  

That's about the whole cast, aside from the various police figures and Mouse's maid Ruby, who does like her nip (a lot more than she likes her mistress).  Each person is distinctly characterized and there's a good little mystery plot here which takes some unexpected turns.  At least they were unexpected to me.  

Doubtlessly the depiction of the female medico, Pamela Cloud, was influenced by the author's real life doctor partner, Liliane Clopet.  Women doctors aren't too common in Golden Age mysteries, so this was one interesting aspect of what turned out to be an interesting detective story.  

Will Derry live to become a doctor too?  Like a lot of young people she wavers in what she wants to be, but it's at least significant that medicine is something she is thinking about as a career.  "Perhaps I'll start a kennels--or a school," she muses to Dr. Cloud at another point, to which the latter responds: "Kennels, every time."   

I think in the last Gladys Mitchell mystery, The Crozier Pharaohs (1984), some women own a kennels.  This used to be something ladies did to support themselves independently in old mysteries, like starting chicken farms (or was the latter more retired army men).  After all, one can't always get a legacy or a man!  Of course both Mary Fitt and Liliane Clopet were college-educated and supported themselves with professions.  

Extra points to Derry when, late in the story, she speculates that Mouse's murderer was a passing tramp.  Hooray!  I always love to see that old chestnut.  Also we learn that the Chief Constable of the county is one Col. Anderson, who resides at a country house near Chode and previously appeared in the best of the early Mallettless Fitts, in my view, The Three Hunting Horns (1937), set in France.  

Thinks Superintendent Mallett somewhat dismissively of Anderson, as they talk over the case in the Colonel's library: "He fancied himself a detective, ever since that case he had solved in France--according to himself, for of course it was impossible to check up on his story."  

It's always nice to have recurring minor characters in a series.  There's another one here who reappeared the next year in Death Starts a Rumour, but I can't say whom, because this person is a murder suspect in Mouse.

Then there's the character who complains: "We're all in leading-strings now.  All the manly virtues are dead.  The law exists to protect skunks, not to punish criminals."  A little bit of "little England" sentiment, which doubtlessly we will be hearing more of from MAGA in the US this year, but don't make the mistake of thinking the author necessarily agrees with it.  "Miss Fitt" was unorthodox in British detective fiction in some ways, despite her preference for classic country house settings.