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Mitchell, Gladys

Page history last edited by Jon 12 years, 4 months ago

Gladys MitchellGladys Maude Winifred Mitchell (April 19, 1901 – July 27, 1983) was an English author best known for her creation of Mrs. Bradley, the heroine of numerous detective novels. She also wrote under the pseudonyms Stephen Hockaby and Malcolm Torrie.


Mitchell was born in Cowley, Oxfordshire on April 19, 1901 to James, a market gardener of Scottish parentage, and Annie. She was educated at Rothschild School, Brentford and Green School, Isleworth. From 1919 to 1921 she attended Goldsmiths College and University College, London.


Upon her graduation Mitchell became a teacher of history, English and games at St Paul's School, Brentford until 1925. She then taught at St Anne's Senior Girls School, Ealing until 1939. In 1926 She obtained an external diploma in European History from University College in 1926 and she then began to write novels while continuing to teach. In 1941 she joined Brentford Senior Girls School where she stayed until 1950. After a three year break from teaching she took a job at Matthew Arnold School, Staines, where she taught English and history, coached hurdling and wrote the annual school play until her retirement to Corfe Mullen, Dorset in 1961. She continued to write until her death aged 82 on July 27, 1983.


She was a member of the Middlesex Education Association, the British Olympic Association, the Crime Writers' Association, PEN and the Society of Authors. Her hobbies included architecture and writing poetry. She studied the works of Sigmund Freud and her interest in witchcraft was encouraged by her friend the detective novelist Helen Simpson. She never married.


Mitchell wrote at least one novel a year throughout her career. Her first novel (Speedy Death, 1929) introduced Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, a polymathic psychoanalyst and author who featured in a further 65 novels. Her strong views in social and philosophical issues reflected those of her author and her assistant, Laura Menzies, appears to have been something of a self-portrait of the young Mitchell.


Mitchell was an early member of the Detection Club along with G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers and throughout the 1930s was believed to be one of the "Big Three women detective writers", but she often challenged and mocked the conventions of the genre - notably in her earliest books, such as the first novel Speedy Death, where Mrs Bradley commits one of the murders, or her parodies of Christie in The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop (1929) and The Saltmarsh Murders (1932). Her plots and settings were unconventional with Freudian psychology, witchcraft (notably in The Devil at Saxon Wall (1935) and The Worsted Viper (1943)) and the supernatural (naiads and Nessie, ghosts and Greek gods) as recurrent themes.


In addition to her 66 Mrs. Bradley novels Mitchell also used the pseudonyms of Stephen Hockaby (for a series of historical novels) and Malcolm Torrie (for a series of detective stories featuring an architect named Timothy Herring) and wrote ten children's books under her own name.


Although three posthumously published novels sold well in the 1980s, radio adaptations were made of Speedy Death and The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop (with Mary Wimbush as Mrs Bradley), and a BBC television series of the Mrs. Bradley Mysteries was produced in 1999, only one of her novels (The Rising of the Moon, 1945) is available in paperback. That said, several of her books are available in large print editions, and a collection of hitherto unpublished short stories, Sleuth's Alchemy, was published by Crippen and Landru in 2005. At the date of writing (September 2005), Minnow Press has just republished her extremely rare - and extremely good - 1940 novel Brazen Tongue (with more to follow, one hopes); and Rue Morgue, which has reprinted (among others) the works of Dorothy Bowers and Pamela Branch, is republishing Death at the Opera and When Last I Died. 2005 has been a very good year for Mitchell.


Nick Fuller on Gladys Mitchell


What did GM want to write? At the most basic level, detective stories, in which 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 (GM, "Why Do People Read Detective Stories?", 1977). But she also saw her 'books as fairy tales... I never take the crime itself seriously'. So the books have all the qualities of the works of the Brothers Grimm, with:


  • A magical and often menacing atmosphere, in which odd or unaccountable events befall wanderers in lonely places (c.f. The Dancing Druids).
  • The threatening presence of dark forests, old houses in unkempt grounds, and storm-tossed islands.
  • The presence of the supernatural.
  • Children who are braver, more sensible & more astute than the adults, even becoming the detective on occasion (The Rising of the Moon, Late, Late in the Evening).
  • A relish for macabre details, either sinister or blackly comic.
  • Mrs Bradley, a witch - the (Benevolent) Dominant Grandmother Theme.
  • When GM said that she never took 'the crime itself seriously', she didn't mean that she skimped on writing or construction, but that she wasn't interested in dark psychological troubles or social forces. She also meant that detection is not the whole purpose.


This gave her the freedom to write novels, not just detective stories. (Indeed, considered purely as detective stories, GM's books are often disappointing, because the murderer's identity can be an anti-climax, or is known from early on.) She was perhaps the boldest and most successful writer to experiment with what the detective story could do. Her earliest books are logical satires of the genre, but later books include pastiches of other literary genres (Gothic melodrama in The Croaking Raven and Dance to Your Daddy, the romances of Walter Scott in My Father Sleeps, the mediaeval mystery play in The Devil at Saxon Wall, the MR James ghost story in When Last I Died, and the Homeric epic in Come Away, Death). She was also a great innovator: she (as far as I know) invented the historiographical detective story in When Last I Died, experimented with the unreliable narrator and stories within stories in the bizarre, brilliant Sunset over Soho, and used child narrators in The Rising of the Moon, among others. With their emphasis on setting, characterisation, style and imagination, and lack of interest in pure detection, they are closer to the "crime novel" than to the pure puzzle. But should they be classed as detective stories?


On his website (www.gladysmitchell.com, Jason Hall argues that to enjoy the detective fiction of GM, the reader has to approach them less as traditional detective stories than as first-rate escapist fiction. Using the murder mystery frame as a springboard for her plots, Mitchell delivers a variety of tones and stories, the great majority of them creative, singular, and highly readable. I've found more clever mystery stories elsewhere, but I've rarely found richer, more vibrant ones. Gladys Mitchell is a fiction writer who happens to write murder mysteries, rather than the other way around.


Her books are comic, surreal and full of vitality and energy, and more interested in people's eccentricities and foibles and the small joys of life (history, travel, food, literature, architecture, mythology, landscape) than in unbreakable alibis. One always remembers the setting and people more than the plots. Certainly, many of her staunchest admirers think of her not as a writer of detective stories, but as a writer. Craig & Cadogan found in them 'the complexity & ambiguity in human morals & compulsions which GM, as a serious novelist, finds it impossible to disregard', while Philip Larkin 'read them as novels. They ought to be known as such.'


Did GM know the end?



"I find every book difficult to write, partly because, even if I make a plan, I seldom keep to it. Then I am apt to get new ideas as I go along, and this often necessitates a certain amount of rewriting. I can't think of any book which it was easiest to write, but I have, fortunately, immense powers of concentration and a single-track mind, so on the whole I suppose each book takes about seven months to write, but I do a great deal of revision and a certain amount of research as I go along. I write in long-hand and send the manuscript away to be typed. Then I make alterations to the typescript, so that means more typing. I can't stand the sound of a typewriter, and can't spell on a machine, either." (Interview with BA Pike, 'In Praise of Gladys Mitchell', TAD, 1976).


This is by no means uncommon. Ruth Rendell, for instance, often changes the murderers at the end of the Wexfords, to make the solution more surprising (obvious, once you know, in The Veiled One and Kissing the Gunner's Daughter). Nor does it matter, so long as the murderer is inevitable and the story coherent.


Are GM's? There are, admittedly, several with arbitrary murderers: the earliest is The Devil's Elbow, and many of the late books (1970s on) have fairly interchangeable murderers. On the other hand, in all the books of the 1930s, most of the 1940s ones and several later ones (notably Dance to Your Daddy, Gory Dew), the murderer is inevitable, both psychologically and circumstantially convincing (Come Away, Death, perhaps her best book, uses the Greek sources brilliantly, particularly the Iliad and the Oresteia). She delivers legitimate surprises in, among others, The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop, The Saltmarsh Murders, Death at the Opera and Brazen Tongue. In many stories, the murderer is known long before the end, often from halfway (including classics like Death and the Maiden and The Echoing Strangers) or even from the very start (Fault in the Structure). So, in short, most books have a definite murderer known from the start, but she would also revise and rewrite the story, including details and plot episodes, as she went. Laurels are Poison is certainly one of the most "shaggy dog" Mitchells.


I rank the books in this order:





The Saltmarsh Murders

Death at the Opera

The Devil at Saxon Wall

Come Away, Death

Death and the Maiden

The Echoing Strangers



The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop

Dead Men's Morris

St Peter's Finger

Brazen Tongue

When Last I Died

The Rising of the Moon

Tom Brown's Body

Merlin's Furlong

The Twenty-Third Man



Speedy Death

The Longer Bodies

Laurels are Poison

Sunset over Soho

My Father Sleeps

Here Comes a Chopper

The Dancing Druids

Groaning Spinney

The Man Who Grew Tomatoes

My Bones Will Keep

The Croaking Raven

Dance to Your Daddy

Late, Late in the Evening

Fault in the Structure

Nest of Vipers

Here Lies Gloria Mundy

The Greenstone Griffins



Printer's Error

The Worsted Viper

The Devil's Elbow

Faintley Speaking

Watson's Choice

Twelve Horses and the Hangman's Noose

Spotted Hemlock

The Nodding Canaries

Death of a Delft Blue

Three Quick and Five Dead

Gory Dew

Lament for Leto

A Hearse on May Day

The Murder of Busy Lizzie

A Javelin for Jonah

Winking at the Brim

Convent on Styx

Noonday and Night

Wraiths and Changelings

Mingled with Venom

The Mudflats of the Dead

The Whispering Knights

The Death Cap Dancers

Lovers, Make Moan

Cold, Lone & Still

No Winding Sheet

The Crozier Pharaohs



Hangman's Curfew

Say It With Flowers

Adders on the Heath

Pageant of Murder

Skeleton Island

Death of a Burrowing Mole




Speedy Death (1929)

The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop (1929)

The Longer Bodies (1930)

The Saltmarsh Murders (1932)

Death at the Opera (1934) aka Death in the Wet

The Devil at Saxon Wall (1935)

Dead Men's Morris (1936)

Come Away, Death (1937)

St Peter's Finger (1938)

Printer's Error (1939)

Brazen Tongue (1940)

Hangman's Curfew (1941)

When Last I Died (1941)

Laurels are Poison (1942)

The Worsted Viper (1943)

Sunset Over Soho (1943)

My Father Sleeps (1944)

The Rising of the Moon (1945)

Here Comes a Chopper (1946)

Death and the Maiden (1947)

The Dancing Druids (1948)

Tom Brown's Body (1949)

Groaning Spinney (1950)

The Devil's Elbow (1951)

The Echoing Strangers (1952)

Merlin's Furlong (1953)

Faintley Speaking (1954)

Watson's Choice (1955)

Twelve Horses and the Hangman's Noose (1956)

The Twenty-third Man (1957)

Spotted Hemlock (1958)

The Man Who Grew Tomatoes (1959)

Say It with Flowers (1960)

The Nodding Canaries (1961)

My Bones Will Keep (1962)

Adders on the Heath (1963)

Death of a Delft Blue (1964)

Pageant of Murder (1965)

The Croaking Raven (1966)

Skeleton Island (1967)

Three Quick and Five Dead (1968)

Dance to Your Daddy (1969)

Gory Dew (1970)

Lament for Leto (1971)

A Hearse on May Day (1972)

The Murder of Busy Lizzie (1973)

A Javelin for Jonah (1974)

Winking at the Brim (1974)

Convent on Styx (1975)

Late, Late in the Evening (1976)

Noonday and Night (1977)

Fault in the Structure (1977)

Wraiths and Changelings (1978)

Mingled with Venom (1978)

Nest of Vipers (1979)

The Mudflats of the Dead (1979)

Uncoffin'd Clay (1980)

The Whispering Knights (1980)

The Death-Cap Dancers (1981)

Lovers, Make Moan (1981)

Here Lies Gloria Mundy (1982)

Death of a Burrowing Mole(1982)

The Greenstone Griffins (1983)

Cold, Lone and Still (1983)

No Winding Sheet (1984)

The Crozier Pharaohs (1984)

Sleuth's Alchemy (2005)


As Malcolm Torrie:

Heavy as Lead (1966)

Late and Cold (1967)

Your Secret Friend (1968)

Churchyard Salad (1969)

Shades of Darkness (1970)

Bismarck Herrings (1971)


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