Detective Fiction on Acid. Remembering ‘The Great Gladys’ Mitchell.

Posterity can be cruel. Sometimes with reason. But perhaps never more so than to the writer whose work is out of print. Those once celebrated by the public, their peers and critics can, just a few short years after their death, find that they are forgotten. It was George Orwell who pointed out that, alongside politicians, artists, soldiers, it is a desire for immortality - for whatever psychological reasons - which drives writers. So history’s scorn seems a particularly nasty trick.

One such case, the long neglect of Gladys Mitchell, a relic of the fabled Golden Age of Detective Fiction, has often puzzled me. In her lifetime she was celebrated as a daring and inventive author; a member of The Detective Club, the Crime Writers’ Association and the Society of Authors, she was the prolific progenitor of some 86 full detective novels (and more besides); a trailblazer herself she created another, the psychoanalyst Breatrice Adela LeStrange Bradley who was her detective in some sixty works; a teacher she wrote not just for adults but detective stories for children as well.  Her work has energy, skill and wit; in her time she was rated alongside the best writers of the genre but, be truthful now, how many of you actually have read any of her works?                           

Born in Cowley, Oxfordshire in 1901 to Scots parents Gladys Mitchell studied at Goldsmiths College then University College London before becoming a teacher in west London. Her first novel, Speedy Death, was published in 1929 to critical acclaim (and rapidly followed the same year by The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop). Except for a brief hiatus in the early 1950s she remained a teacher until her retirement in 1961 but still found time to produce a novel a year until 1983. Her flair as a fiction writer merited Philip Larkin’s epithet ’The Great Gladys’ and she was rightly accorded a billing equal to the other great female detective writers Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L Sayers.

The sheer verve of that age must have been inspiring; the versatility and range of its writers considerable. Alongside GK Chesteron and others such as Dashiell Hammett, the Golden Age took up the baton of Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle to forge a genre whose fantastic, escapist elements appealed to the zeitgeist of the grim inter-war years. In the same sense that London society was populated by hedonistic Bright Young Things (neatly satirised in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies) detective fiction was an answer to the existential angst of the 1920s and 1930s. Yet it more than that: they are intellectual puzzles. Furthermore as she wrote (Why Do People Read Detective Stories?), unlike a lot of modern literature, detective fiction has a definite plot: “[Detective] writers must tidy up the loose ends; must supply a logical solution to the problem they have posed; must also, to hold the reader's attention, combine the primitive lust and energy of the hunter with the cold logic of the scholarly mind.”  

Traditional morality is banished in Mitchell’s world. She is much more interesting than that

Allingham, a writer of true literary note, gave the genre pedigree; Sayers, as well, peppered her work with neat literary references and social satire; meanwhile Christie’s work can be seen as a parade of Burkean conservatism. Perhaps the least interesting as a writer, but by far the most successful, Christie is the model for the genre: her mechanistic plots are brilliant, but characterisation is limited - she allows her characters only as much breadth as will drive on the plot - and subservient to plot. Whereas Allingham and Sayers’ presented detectives who were the epitome - gentlemen and amateur - for the genre in the mysterious Albert Campion and the languid, foppish (but absurdly named) Peter Wimsey, Christie gave the world Hercule Poirot, a Belgian immigrant, an outsider who dispenses justice to England’s upper-middle classes.

Mitchell, on the other hand, goes further. Unlike Poirot, Mrs Bradley is a genuine and radical social progressive with an aversion to the death penalty; unlike Christie’s other - and female - detective the ‘spinster’ Jane Marple, Bradley is the ultimate career woman, a divorcee (several times), writer and Home Department criminologist. Bradley, her sense of reason reflecting Mitchell’s, is the diametric opposite to Christiean embourgeoisement. Moreover if mystery fiction is a gentle ride through mayhem, Mitchell moves her works into darker corners, exploring closed societies, incest, transgenderism and witchcraft. She prodded, she satirised, she exploited black humour, and stood the whole genre on its head.

Traditional morality is banished in Mitchell’s world. She is much more interesting than that. When presented with two murders (Dead Man’s Morris), Bradley comments that not much harm has been done. Thus does Mitchell echo the readers’ conflicting desire for murder and need for justice. It is as a close as a novel can get to breaking the fourth wall. In her rejection of the law as the ultimate arbiter of justice, Mitchell was way ahead of her contemporaries. In a sense, and in her psychological understanding, perhaps she is still ahead of her time. With her lack of judgement and empathy she poses the question: are we actually any better than those we condemn? Shades of Durkheim contest our notions of civilised society.

unexpectedness - of form, theme and plot - is the only expected with Mitchell

Few other writers, if any, pushed the limits of Mayhem Parva as Mitchell did; even her choice of heroine is innovative: Bradley is presented in uncomfortable and frightening, even ugly or serpentine, terms. Who else would have a detective descended from witches? If Sayers created Wimsey as her ideal man, the iconoclastic and omniscient Bradley can perhaps be seen as Mitchell’s idealisation of the self. She revels in British eccentricity and mysticism. Reading Gladys Mitchell is like reading Margery Allingham paying homage to Agatha Christie on acid.

‘Whodunnits’, even some eighty years after its renaissance still popular, can be seen as quintessential of the human desire to bring order to messy, disordered reality. Why else do we read? Detective fiction’s very purpose is to create order, through justice, out of chaos. Mitchell does this but outside the confines of societal convention and with hyper-rationalism. It is almost unnerving. Often detective fiction has a reassuring quality, but unexpectedness - of form, theme and plot - is the only expected with Mitchell.

Although in recent years the better known of Mitchell’s oeuvre have been republished, it seems an injustice that she has received scant neglect since her death in 1983. Who knows why? There have been no major works exploring Mitchell’s literary achievements and life.  Unlike Christie there have been no silver screen, all-star cast adaptations of her works. It is almost impossible to conceive of how her work could translate to cinema. On television representation of her books has been muted, except for a 1990s series with Diana Rigg as Adela Bradley. Despite Rigg the series is, for purists, a disappointment, though there are several points of interest. Even radio, so often home for mystery fiction, has not given her work deserved inspection, but for two adaptations with the legendary Mary Wimbush. What does this say about us?

Detective fiction is too often maligned, its writers looked down upon, its readers patronised. Yet sometimes there is something ‘safe’ about the genre. And whatever she is, Gladys Mitchell is far from that. That is her claim to greatness and maybe the sad reason for her modern obscurity.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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