Classic Crime

Gladys Mitchell

The following biography is taken from the article ‘In Praise of Gladys Mitchell’ by B. A. Pike, published in the Armchair Detective, Vol. No. 9
4th October 1976.

Gladys Mitchell was born in the village of Cowley, near Oxford in April 1901. She is of Scottish descent on her father’s side. Her early years were spent in Oxfordshire and Hampshire, but in 1909 her family moved to Middlesex, where she was educated at the Rothschild School, Brentford and at the Green School, Isleworth. She went on to Goldsmith’s College and University College, London, qualifying as a teacher and gaining an extra-mural diploma in European history.

She became a teacher of English, history and games and though she found success as a writer, she remained in the teaching profession until her first retirement in 1950. Her first post was in a small Church of England school, St. Paul’s, Brentford. She then taught at St. Ann’s Senior Girls School in Hanwell, remaining there until the outbreak of war. Mitchell specialized in history and athletics and she coached, among others, a county hurdles champion in the mid-1930’s. After a year’s enforced absence from teaching owing to illness, she joined the staff of Brentford Senior Girl’s School where, in addition to her usual history and games, she taught elementary Spanish and where she remained until she retired in 1950.

After nearly three years of retirement, Ms. Mitchell was invited to the Matthew Arnold County Secondary Schools for Girls to judge an inter-House gymnastics competition and to address the school. At the conclusion of her speech, the headmistress invited Ms. Mitchell to join her staff the following term, and although she had no intention of returning to teaching, the omens seemed favourable and she accepted the post offered her. In addition to teaching history and English, she wrote a number of plays for the girls to perform, including versions of the Greek legends of Theseus and Jason, the story of Jonah and the Norse legends: an adaptation of ‘The Frogs’ by Aristophanes; and a musical called “Alice Again” based on the Lewis Carroll classics. Miss Mitchell finally retired from teaching in 1961 at the age of 60.

During her teaching career, Ms. Mitchell lived first in Brentford and then in Ealing, but on her retirement she moved to the country, to Corfe Mullen in Dorset, where she was able to pursue two of her principal interests, the investigation of pre-historic sites and the study of mediaeval architecture. She had long been an enthusiastic student of Freud; and she attributed her interest in witchcraft to the influence of her friend, the crime writer, Helen Simpson. Mitchell received membership in the British Olympic Association, a testament to her enduring interest in athletics.

Miss Mitchell wrote her first novel in 1923, but it was rejected, as were three others afterwards. In desperation, she tried her hand at a detective story and the result was ‘Speedy Death’. Victor Gollancz agreed to publish the book despite the fact that it ‘had every fault under the sun’. That book’s detective, Mrs. Bradley would be featured in sixty-five more novels and several short stories until her creator’s death in 1983.

Review: Nest of Vipers

There is something intriguing about a bunch of people from different backgrounds and with differing views all living under the same roof. It always leads to a clash of personalities, petty squabbles and jealousies. Ruth Rendell was a great one for putting strange characters under one roof and here Gladys Mitchell does it with panache. This is not surprising as by the time this book was written (1979), Mitchell had been writing for fifty years. Not all her later books hit the target, but this Dame Beatrice mystery shows what Mitchell could achieve when she was firing on all cylinders.

Here, Mitchell keeps on track with her plot which is an intriguing one. Her motley crew consists of a bunch of writers renting out apartments in a huge house, left to Chelion Piper in Mrs Dupont-Jacobson’s in gratitude for once saving her from drowning. Miss Minnie was a great friend of the late departed lady and claims the house should have been left to her… and so trouble begins! There is a number of people to get to know, but Mitchell makes it easy by given them highly unusual names such as Chelion, Niobe, Mandrake Shard and Evesham Evans to name a few! These colourful names go with their bizarre behaviour and eccentric manners.

As with many of Mitchell’s novels, there is always some secret society or smuggler gang in the background, this time it is the dark arts that insinuates its way into the apartments of Weston Pipers. Accompanied by her assistant, Laura and her chauffeur, George, Dame Beatrice manages to sniff out the murderer of the anti-social Miss Minnie, but not before another murder is committed.

Dame Beatrice is a no-nonsense lady and does not suffer fools gladly. Nor is she fooled by the lies some tell her, especially being a psychologist for the Home Office. Mitchell favoured her creation with the reptilian looks of a pterodactyl! Hardly the most pleasant of descriptions, but it does tend to describe her perfectly as a bird of prey, watching, waiting for that moment when she swoops in and catches her murderer. Although here, Dame Beatrice shows her benevolent side, she is still a million miles from anything like that other beloved detective, Miss Marple!

Gladys Mitchell is one of those charming writers who has always been undersold in my opinion and with most of her back catalogue now available (she wrote 66 Dame Beatrice mysteries), this is a classic mystery writer who deserves to be re-discovered and although ‘Nest of Vipers’ is a later mystery, Mitchell wrote each of her books as individual cases so any reader can dip in and out without having to start from the beginning. These are great, slightly bonkers, escapist fun mysteries that deserve respect.

Reviewed by: C.S.

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