Are you acquainted with Mrs. Bradley? Mrs. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, noted psychiatrist, frequently employed by the police as a criminal investigator? Mrs. Bradley does not laugh, she "cackles." Her features have frequently been described by her author, Gladys Mitchell, as "reptilian," even as a "benevolent crocodile"; her students and other acquaintances often refer to her as "Mrs. Croc." It is safe to say that Mrs. Bradley is one of the most original and unusual protagonists to come down to us from the so-called Golden Age of Detective Fiction in England.
Mitchell's books about Mrs. Bradley - more than 60 of them - are something of an acquired taste, but to those of us who have been captivated by Mrs. Bradley's odd behavior, her belief that witchcraft has its uses, her insistence on doing things her way (even, on at least one occasion, committing murder herself), she is a marvelous companion. Take the events in "Laurels Are Poison," first published in 1942, which is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. It is said to have been Mitchell's favorite among her own books. You can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
In "Laurels Are Poison," we find Mrs. Bradley acting as the Warden - the person in charge - of a residence hall at the Cartaret Training College, where young women are trained to become teachers. The previous Warden unaccountably disappeared one night - simply wandered off and vanished - and Mrs. Bradley has been asked to move in and see if she can figure out what happened.
To that end, she enlists three of the students (who refer to themselves throughout as "The Three Musketeers") to help in her search. And there are more inexplicable phenomena, including a variety of apparent pranks, some innocent, others quite dangerous. Eventually, of course, there is murder.
All of which, I fear, gives very little idea of the general mayhem that is going on in this highly enjoyable book. It is enjoyable, that is, if you enjoy some of the extreme forms of English eccentricity. The writing is high-spirited, frequently funny, sometimes grimly so. Some of the events are quite surreal, if fascinating - take the discovery, for example, of a female drowning victim's corsets floating in the river. There are occasional attacks against Mrs. Bradley, too. And, as is often the case with Gladys Mitchell, while some events are quite thoroughly explained, others sort of...well, just happen, and the reader is left to go back and figure out precisely how, when and why.
During Gladys Mitchell's lifetime and her remarkably prolific and long writing career - her first book appeared in 1929, her last in 1984, after her death - remarkably few of her books about Mrs. Bradley were published in the United States. I think it's the occasional runs into the surreal and the amazing eccentricities of Mrs. Bradley and the other characters that may explain why she never really caught on among many American readers. But I am delighted to find some of her books, such as "Laurels Are Poison," being republished by the Rue Morgue Press and others. In fact, this book - and other Mitchells - are now available in a Kindle edition for Amazon.