Saxon Wall was not exactly one of those lovely, idyllic and peaceful little English villages, so often the setting for a rather genteel murder or two. The people were rather nasty and unfriendly, everyone seemed to share some rather sordid secrets, and there was an uneasy aura of witchcraft which hung over the town. So when there were several unexplained deaths - not to mention persistent rumors about babies being switched at birth - psychiatrist and consultant Beatrice Lestrange Bradley was called to town to try and make sense out of what was going on at Saxon Wall. What she found is explained in Gladys Mitchell's marvelous 1935 book, The Devil at Saxon Wall. It's the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
What kind of village is Saxon Wall? Here's how Mitchell describes it:
“The village of Saxon Wall, where they had come to live, was in a remote part of Hampshire. It was an ugly, straggling place, and Constance disliked and feared the people. They were like no villagers that she had ever seen. She had a poor memory for verse, but every time she encountered any of the inhabitants of Saxon Wall there came into her mind the line ‘ugly squat and full of guile.’…Both men and women seemed stupid and ferocious, so that, mixed with the fear of them, was a good deal of disgust. Even the children were ugly, and most of them threw stones at her whenever they saw her.”
Suffice it to say that Constance does not thrive in Saxon Wall. And it is only when an outsider comes to town, an author named Hannibal Jones, that anyone begins to connect the dots around a number of disappearances and mysterious deaths, along with those rumors about exchanged babies. And it is up to Mrs. Bradley to pursue those clues and find some resolution to the case.
That summary probably makes the book sound grimmer than it really is. Gladys Mitchell has a wonderful way of working humor into her text, amid some genuine horrors. Readers looking for eccentric behavior and eerie atmosphere in an excellent Golden Age classic will find much to enjoy here – whether it’s the eldritch laugh of Mrs. Bradley, or the odd behavior of the sisters who keep a goat as their household pet, or the minister who refuses to pray for rain in the midst of a terrible drought, or the rumors of the “long, thin man,” a spirit buried outside town in a prehistoric barrow and believed by villagers to be sleeping there. And, always, back to witchcraft again.
Fair warning: the plot is quite convoluted - so much so that, after the novel ends, we are presented with Mrs. Bradley's notes about the case, which include pointers to the clues (many given to us while reading) that led her eventually to solve the various mysteries of Saxon Wall. This is probably not the best introduction to Mrs. Bradley for a new reader. But if you've encountered her before, and enjoyed the eccentricities and humor along with the requisite horrors, then by all means read The Devil at Saxon Wall. Long unavailable in the U.S., it's now back in print in a new edition and also available as an ebook, and I recommend it strongly to Mrs. Bradley's fans - and Mitchell's fans as well.
I am submitting The Devil at Saxon Wall as another title read as part of the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog, filling the square on my Golden Bingo card calling for "one book set in England."