Shy mathematics teacher Calma Ferris has generously offered to fund her school’s play, a staff performance of The Mikado. As a reward, she’s chosen to play the part of the fearsome Katisha, despite being completely unsuited to the role. But she never makes it on stage. She misses her Act 1 cue, and a replacement is hastily found.
After the performance, Miss Ferris is found drowned in one of the school’s wash basins. The coroner returns a suicide verdict, but who would kill themselves by stopping up a drainpipe with modeller’s clay? But, conversely, who could possibly want to kill such an unassuming woman? The headmaster, unsatisfied with the verdict but fearing a scandal, calls in Mrs Bradley to investigate. But there’ll be two more drownings before she unmasks the culprit…
In brief: Well-observed and enjoyably waspish, with good pacing and strong clues. A relatively “normal” Mitchell mystery, and stronger for it. But be prepared for some outlandish character motivation in the final pages.
More detail, but no spoilers, below the cut.
Gladys Maude Winifred Mitchell, as well as having a royal flush of English old-lady names, wrote almost 70 novels featuring her psychoanalyst detective Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley. Which must be approaching some kind of record?
What’s surprising about Mrs Bradley’s longevity is the utter strangeness on display – both the lady herself and the stories she finds herself in. You’d expect such a long running series to be safe and bland, but Mitchell’s novels are some of the weirdest you’re likely to find, rivalling even Michael Innes’ wartime Appleby novels in their oddness, and Mrs Bradley is as far from a Miss Marple type as you can imagine. Sometimes this is an issue, even for fans – Mitchell’s inventiveness can outpace her ability to juggle various plot threads, and there’s a fundamental mismatch between Mrs Bradley’s reliance on psychological reasoning and some of the utterly bonkers behaviour we’re supposed to accept. Books like The Saltmarsh Murders feel like they’ve got one twist too many, overturning a perfectly good and surprising solution for something utterly barmy.
Luckily Death at the Opera reins all of this in. Sure, the ultimate motivation for Calma Ferris’ death is… unusual(!), but generally everyone behaves in a believable and interesting fashion. Miss Ferris is a sympathetic victim, and the other characters at the school aren’t just stereotypes waiting to be interrogated by the saurian Mrs Bradley; not only are they distinct individuals, crucially they all have believable ideas about each other, and sensible opinions about what happened to Miss Ferris. Almost everyone immediately realises why Mrs Bradley is there, and had already concluded that Miss Ferris was murdered based on the evidence. Contrary to standard mystery form, everyone is generally helpful and encouraging.
Which isn’t to say there’s a lack of conflict or mysteries to unravel: There are cover-ups and lies and obfuscation, but everyone is doing it for good reason, based on their shared history and opinions of the other characters. This avoids the standard mystery problem of everyone gumming up the investigation for artificial reasons just to stop the plot resolving itself too quickly, and it goes a long way to making Hillmaston school feel like a lived-in community, rather than a bunch of people conjured up just to be pieces in a puzzle. Although it’s a good puzzle too, with enough to-ing and fro-ing on the night of The Mikado to be interesting, but not so much as to be strain credulity. There is one enormous coincidence, but it’s highlighted rather than swept under the rug, and itself forms a rather clever clue and piece of misdirection.
Things bog down a bit when Mrs Bradley decamps to Bognor Regis to stay with Miss Ferris’ aunt. There’s an extended subplot involving someone who may or not be a “brides in the bath”-style killer, which ends up taking up so much of the second half of the book that it almost feels like two different mysteries smooshed together. And the characters here are less interesting than those at the school, tending towards folksy tweeness.
But ultimately this all happens for good reason, and in the service of some strong misdirection. Although I worked out who killed Miss Ferris and why, there was a deeper mystery that I missed entirely, one that’s clever, plausible, unusual and sad all at once.
Overall, I’d definitely recommend Death at the Opera, both on its own merits and as a good place to start with Mitchell and Mrs Bradley.
So that’s the review. On Wednesday I’ll talk about some of the tricks and techniques that make Death at the Opera so successful, and on Friday I’ll talk about the BBC adaptation, and how it fundamentally misunderstands what makes Mitchell so interesting.