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.