Friday, 22 April 2011

Forgotten Book - The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop


Gladys Mitchell, one of the most prolific female detective novelists, is one of those writers whose work divides critical opinion. Philip Larkin was a huge fan, for instance, but Julian Symons did not have too much time for her. I read one or two of her books a long time ago and was not particularly impressed, but recently I decided it was time to give her another go. And my choice for today's Forgotten Book is a rather enjoyable story dating back to 1929, The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop.

This book marked the second appearance of Mitchell's remarkable detective, Mrs Bradley. She is living in a quintessentially English village, which happens also to be home to a rather unpleasant blackmailer who goes missing in mysterious circumstances. Suffice to say that you don't need me to tell you what is eventually found in the eponymous butcher's shop…

It is a mark of Mitchell's unique style that she is able to combine decapitation and dismemberment with plentiful humour. Some of the jokes do not stand the test of time, and the dialogue of the working-class characters is almost unreadable. Yet the book does have, despite various flaws, an enduring charm which explains why Vintage have reprinted half a dozen titles in the Mrs Bradley series. Mitchell offers multiple potential solutions to her mystery, with a flair worthy of Anthony Berkeley, and we are supplied with extracts from Mrs Bradley's notebook, as well as two plans and a timetable. Finally, there is a pleasing twist which sees Mrs Bradley taking a rather idiosyncratic approach to the notion of justice.

One further thing struck me about this book. Not far from the village is to be found "The Stone of Sacrifice" – and in my Lake District Mysteries, there is a Sacrifice Stone close to where Daniel Kind has his cottage. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun!

14 comments:

Kacper said...

First time commenter here, I feel a bit nervous!

I do see how Mitchell's style is polarizing - I really enjoy her books myself, but I couldn't handle reading one after another. Her writing is just a little bit too arch and oh-so-quaint for that, but in small doses, she's highly enjoyable. Mrs Bradley has more personality and genuine charm than many of her fictional detective contemporaries put together, and while a lot of Mitchell fan seem to hate her, I really enjoy Laura. What does irritate me is her penchant for making extremely minor, undeveloped characters the culprits.

seana said...

Glad you bring up the point of reading older mysteries and having to deal with outdated attitudes toward others. Even Agatha Christie sometimes makes us cringe. It's a shame that we are sometimes abruptly jolted out of the story by a less than enlightened remark. On the other hand, maybe it will teach us to consider our own offhand remarks more closely.

vegetableduck said...

I find this a delightfully bizarre book, easily on par with the Crime Queens. Symons likely never read any of her earlier books, so wasn't too well-qualified to appraise her; yet I doubt he would have had the patience for this one. On the other hand, he should have liked her first, Speedy Death, with its Freudian psychology, transsexualism and sex repression.

John said...

I've always thought Mitchell was parodying the entire genre in her first five or so books. Often the killers have absolutely no motive other than the sheer joy of kiling. And then there's Mrs. Bradley's "rather idiosyncratic approach to the notion of justice" as you deftly put it which reveals a streak of amorality in at least two books I've read. These ideas were radical departures for the late 20s and early 30s, I think. I'm always amazed that some of the first members of the Detection Club, who supposedly were expected to uphold the traditions of the genre, were also the first ones who defiantly broke all the rules regularly. Berkeley, Kennedy and Mitchell lead the pack among the rule breakers.

I cannot abide Mitchell's later books from about 1958 until the end of her career in the late 70s. And she's hit and miss with me throughout the 40s and 50s.

Martin Edwards said...

Kacper, welcome. Howards Bookend is a brilliant blog name.
I like your last point. I did this once in an early story of mine, and always regretted it!

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Seana, quite right. And on another note, it's desirable for a writer to be careful about 'new' technology, which very soon dates....

Martin Edwards said...

Curt, I must read Speedy Death!

Martin Edwards said...

John, these are fascinating points, well worth developing further. Maybe in one of your blog posts?

Dorte H said...

I just finished a really old thing, Mary Elizabeth Braddon´s Lady Audley´s Secret from 1862. I do enjoy classical or golden age mysteries once in a while, but it took me five days to get through all her descriptions. So now I need something more modern, but I may return to that butcher´s shop one day. Decapitation indeed.

vegetableduck said...

John, the supposed blind fidelity of members of the Detection Club to "the rules" has been greatly exaggerated. People act as if sacred tablets engraved with the comments of Willard Wright and Father Knox were handed out to all detective fiction writers, with the injunction to follow them at the peril of one's life. There really was one key rule, that of fair play--and even that rule got bent!

I have a CADS pamphlet on this subject coming out this summer, stay tuned!

vegetableduck said...

Dorte, some of those Victorian triple-decker novels can be quite long-winded indeed. It takes a first-rate writer, I think, to maintain reader interest at the same high level over 600, 700, 800 pages. But Victoriana seems to be all the rage these days.

Dorte H said...

Vegetableduck: I know. But while I love 400 pages written by a fellow called Charles Dickens, these 400 felt a bit long ;)

vegetableduck said...

Dorte: It's amazing how Dickens can make 100 pages fly by!

seana said...

Kacper, don't worry--we have a very gracious host here, and it's a friendly crowd!

I just realized that these Mrs. Bradley mysteries are the ones that the BBC based the series starring Diana Rigg on. The series was excellent, but then, I've never know Ms. Rigg to put a foot wrong.