Thursday, April 25, 2013
Here Comes A Chopper - Gladys Mitchell
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.
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.
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