The trouble in Saltmarsh began when the vicar's wife discovered that the housemaid was pregnant, with no prospective husband in view. The maid, kicked out of the vicarage, found refuge at the local pub. But when the baby arrived, the new mother refused to name its father - or, for that matter, to show the baby to anyone. Then there was a murder. Then someone disappears...
But you get the idea. Saltmarsh is another of those lovely, peaceful, idyllic English villages so dear to Golden Age mystery authors and readers - and, when you look a little more closely, you find that it is perhaps not so lovely, peaceful and idyllic. It is the scene for some remarkably bizarre and darkly funny goings-on in The Saltmarsh Murders, by Gladys Mitchell, the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, which you may hear in its entirety by clicking here.
The Saltmarsh Murders, originally published in 1932, was the fourth book by Gladys Mitchell to feature her psychiatrist protagonist, Mrs. Bradley. And, believe me, there is a great deal for a psychiatrist to observe in Saltmarsh. I don't think I can sum up the plot very easily for this one, because it is quite complex and fairly outrageous. Perhaps the best I can do is cite the introduction by Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan, written for a 1984 edition of the book. They describe the village of Saltmarsh and the book this way:
"Adultery, high jinks, horseplay, an illegitimate birth, a hidden baby, rumours of infanticide, exhibitions of lunacy, a couple of murders, a lost corpse, an illicit trade in pornography, even a spot of incest all keep things lively for Gladys Mitchell's benighted villagers before Mrs. Bradley gets to the bottom of the imbroglio."
As for Mrs. Bradley herself, the vicar's daughter, Daphne, describes her this way: “a most fearful and wonderful creature, just like a lizard or something quite scaly and prehistoric, with a way of screeching with laughter which makes you jump.”
While The Saltmarsh Murders is generally highly regarded by fans of both Gladys Mitchell and Mrs Bradley (myself included), I must admit that I wouldn't suggest it as your first introduction to Mitchell's books. While there's a lot of humor in it, Mrs. Bradley seems even more eccentric than usual, which is saying something. And while the mystery is fascinating, and the characters really unique, it's a little over the top. But if you've already read other books featuring Mrs. Bradley, you really owe it to yourself to try The Saltmarsh Murders.
Now a complaint: when I first decided to review The Saltmarsh Murders a couple of months ago, it was easily available in an e-book edition for the Amazon Kindle. That one has disappeared from the catalogue, and the book is out of print; if you follow the link to the Amazon page, you'll find plenty of second hand book dealers are offering inexpensive copies of the printed book. That would appear to be your best chance of obtaining a copy, though it IS still available as an audiobook (also at the link). It's worth the effort.