Thursday, April 25, 2013

Here Comes A Chopper - Gladys Mitchell

I'm not a betting man but if I were I would've bet I wouldn't have found Here Comes a Chopper (1946) to be one of the most engaging books I've read this year. Why? Because I have a very bad history with Gladys Mitchell. She's one of those writers for whom I've failed to find a long lasting appeal. However, from the very first page I was hooked with this one.

Roger Hoskyn intends to go on a walking tour with his pal Bob, but Bob has broken his foot the very day they are to go off together. In his place he sends his sister Dorothy to break the news to Roger. While riding a bus with Roger she pleads with Roger to continue the trip as planned but to take her along as a substitute companion. Begrudgingly he agrees and they go off together but soon get lost. Eventually they find their way to an 18th century estate house where a birthday party for a young boy is about to start. One of the guests, Harry Lingfield, has inexplicably gone missing making for an ominous thirteen guests. Roger and Dorothy find themselves recruited on the spur of the moment as unexpected guests all because the hostess has a superstition about 13 people at a dinner table. They two young people agree to stay mostly due to hunger and fatigue but not without a mixture of curiosity and ingrained British politeness. Among the party guests are a notable British poet , a violinist, an archaeologist and "Mrs. Croc" herself -- Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, Gladys Mitchell's series detective. Any mystery novel fan who knows their Mitchell should see that the inclusion of this odd superstition will serve as an omen that will bode unpleasantness to come. And it's not long after the party that a headless corpse is found on the grounds nearby. Could it be the body of the missing Harry Lingfield?

This is one of the liveliest starts to any Mitchell book I've read and the mystery is more than satisfying. The story has all the requisite good parts of a well written and engrossing Mitchell mystery with little of the bad to offset the overall enjoyment. There are interesting young people as charming leads, good honest detection on the part of Mrs. Bradley and little of her psychological lecturing, scenes involving sporting activities, and Laura Menzies, Mrs. Bradley's Scottish secretary, serving in a minor role as cohort in adventuring and sleuthing for Roger and Dorothy. Additionally, there are a variety of unusual Mitchell touches that pop up throughout the action.

Roger is a teacher at a boys' school and we gradually learn that he is also a published poet with name recognition. The always well-read and hip Mrs. Bradley immediately recognizes his name and recalls his most recent book impressing Roger to no end. This is also Mrs Croc's sly way of stroking his ego so that he will do anything she asks of him. Roger also turns out to be an accomplished rugby player in a scene all too often found in the series -- a descriptive, action-oriented game/competition that shows off Mitchell's love of sport and athletes. Dorothy is also an athlete herself and we see her vaulting fences with ease leaving Roger behind to scramble when she helps in searching the vast estate for clues to help identify the decapitated victim. Archery will also figure prominently in the solution of the crime.

No Mitchell book is complete without her trademark irreverence and black humor. Mrs. Bradley makes jokes about the headless corpse letting loose with her cackling laughter several times and has fun trading jibes with the arrogant police inspector in charge of the murder investigation often outright insulting him. The identification of the corpse proves difficult not only for its lack of a head but due to the absence of any personal effects. Luckily, Mitchell solves this problem by giving the corpse some unique scarring -- on his ass cheeks! I dare you to find something that taboo in any of her fellow mystery writers' books from this period.

In this book we also learn some fascinating personal details about Mrs. Bradley.  One, she is an expert archer and easily pulls off some dazzling work with a bow and arrow scoring a few near bullseyes.  Two, she steps in to save a musical concert flagging due to an injury on the part of Claudia Denham, the violinist, by delivering an impromptu rendition of "Ave Maria" on the cello.  Mrs. Bradley never ceases to surprise us with her myriad talents.

The mystery plot will center on some secrets in Claudia's past and a decidedly British motive based on a code of honor.  There are enough baffling puzzles like a burned out car that seems to have vanished, the confusing identity of the corpse, and the reasoning for the decapitation to keep the reader engaged. If the final solution is a bit predictable it does not detract from the overall enjoyment of the book. Here Comes a Chopper is a successful mix of Mitchell's love of mainstream novel writing, excellent characterization, and bizarre mystery plotting. Only when the story takes a detour with a group of rambunctious boys on a field trip in London does the book tend to lose its focus. But as a former schoolteacher herself Mitchell seemed to be very much at home writing about young people and children. If a school shows up in the plot (and there are many of them in the long series), then school kids will almost always play a minor role of some sort. Mrs. Bradley often seems like a misbehaving teenager with her unconventional attitudes and flippant remarks and that cackling uncensored laughter.

Some good news for Gladys Mitchell fans -- at least those of you on the other side of the pond.  It appears that Vintage Books (in the UK only) is planning to release a handful of Mrs. Bradley mysteries in October 2013.  Here Comes a Chopper is slated to be one of those books. I even found a photo of the book's cover (seen at left) on a UK book website so this one may definitely be available later this year.  It happens to be one of the more difficult Mitchell books to find in the used book market; cross your fingers that this one finally is reprinted. When Gladys Mitchell is on target she is one of the most delightful and original mystery writers of the Golden Age. Here Comes a Chopper is one of her best.

The other titles planned for release, nearly all of which have been practically impossible to find for some time, are: Groaning Spinney, The Echoing Strangers, The Devil at Saxon Wall, My Bones Will Keep, The Devils' Elbow and St. Peter's Finger. Each one has been rated highly by some of the more expert Mitchell fans out there including Nick Fuller, her most recent defender, and Jason Hall who runs the superb Gladys Mitchell tribute website.  I urge you to visit the site if you are interested in learning more about the great Gladys.

READING CHALLENGE UPDATE: Up to six out of the minimum of eight books required for the "Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2013 - Scattergories" sponsored by Bev at My Reader's Block. The book fulfills the category Amateur Night. Previous reviews for the challenge are listed below:

Murder is Academic: Murder from the Grave by Will Levinrew
Colorful Crime: The Woman in Purple Pajamas by Willis Kent
Jolly Old England: Murder in Blue by Clifford Witting
Scene of the Crime: The Mystery at Stowe by Vernon Loder
Staging the Crime: Death in the Limelight by A. E. Martin

6 comments:

  1. The re-release cover you've found looks similar to the covers of the Mitchell books available in the Kindle store:

    http://www.amazon.com/When-Last-I-Died-ebook/dp/B0031RSBFA/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1366889862&sr=1-1&keywords=gladys+mitchell

    I wonder if this means we in North American can expect a re-release as well?

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    1. Those digital books say they are published by Vintage Digital. I'd say it's a certianty that the new batch of books will be in paperback and digital editions. But they've been in the works since August 2012 and they is no word on the Vintage website about the impending release. That's why I say cross your fingers. I would've expected a few of them to be out by now, but every one says the release date is October 3, 2013. We shall see...

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  2. Great review, John, of a Mitchell book I haven't read (there are many, as I've gotten into her rather late) - and especially wonderful news if it comes to fruition) about more Mrs. Bradley mysteries coming from Vintage Books. I have all of Vintage's first wave of Mitchell novels and have greatly enjoyed most of them. I know she's a writer who tends to sharply divide her critics but generally speaking I find her stuff delightful, strange and always well-written, if perhaps her central mystery plots occasionally end on rather obscure or elusive notes. Dame Beatrice herself is a memorable creation. I hope one day Vintage gets around to releasing the first Mitchell book I ever read, and thus a personal favorite, the charming school-set romp LAURELS ARE POISON (which introduces the reader to the athletic and eager Laura Menzies).

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  3. Is this the character played by Diana Rigg in the PBS show? I couldn't stand those. Much as I love Diana Rigg, the shows, to my mind, were just dreadful. Mostly because the main character was so unlikable.

    But maybe it's just me.

    Confused in New Jersey.

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  4. A Mrs. Bradley that I haven't read yet! With a teacher in it! There you go again, John, making me add to the TBR list. Delightful review. Sorry to be getting round to it so late....

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