The Nodding Canaries, by Gladys Mitchell: A Review

Although well-regarded through much of her long career, Gladys Mitchell is not generally ranked among the first tier of Golden Age detective novelists currently. Generally, indeed, it seems that Mitchell’s novels have fallen dangerously nearly into obscurity. There is one excellent and admirably complete website devoted to her works, that being Jason Half’s The Stone House, which is definitely worth a look if you enjoy Mitchell’s writing. But otherwise, the Mrs. Bradley  mysteries are little reviewed or read (judging from a cursory scan on sites like Goodreads and Library Thing), and  not often reprinted (despite a half-dozen or so being reproduced in the US by Rue Morgue Press in the past decade – with disastrous typographical errors in some instances – and about a dozen being reprinted by Vintage in the UK). Occasional reprints do happen, as occurred in the US both in the 1960s and again, twenty years on, in the 1980s, but these editions are often hard to find and moderately expensive when they do turn up. One late-90s television adaptation was made, called “Mrs. Bradley Mysteries” and starring Diana Rigg of The Avengers, Peter Davison of Campion, and Neil Dudgeon of Midsommer Murders, but this proved so disastrously mis-cast and arrogantly re-written that it might as well have been called something else. The best adaptations that I have ever heard, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the early 1990s of Speedy Death and The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop, were regrettably not followed by further efforts. As a result of this dearth of public recognition, some of her books are genuinely scarce and difficult to find, and a few from the 1940s currently register absolutely no results when searching out-of-print book sites.

mitchell_nodding_canaries

The Nodding Canaries, by Gladys Mitchell (Michael Joseph, 1961)

It’s difficult to say definitively why this obscurity might be lavished on so prolific a writer, but I had a thought, in reading 1961’s The Nodding Canaries, of some possible reasons.

Gladys Mitchell’s novels, according to a 1976 interview, never earned her all that much in the way of either accolades or money, but she did well enough, by writing at least one novel per year between 1929 and her death in 1983, to earn a living (although she supplemented this, for many years, by teaching). At this pace, which resulted in over sixty novels just under her own name, not every book can be a gem. Her plots were often outlandish, and sometimes rooted in amusing regionalism. The themes of her novels were often slightly more curious, or “out there” as compared with some of her compatriots, like Christie, Allingham, Marsh, Crispin and others.  Her titles alone should convey this fact, but in the event that it doesn’t a book like The Nodding Canaries will quickly confirm it.

The plot is curious. Miss Alice Boorman is up for promotion at her school, located in the town of Nodding in Norfolk. Her two rivals for the post (one from Scotland, one from Devonshire) come to interview with her for the post, and they stay with Miss Boorman. After a friendly day’s activities, the three elect to visit a local archaeological dig, the Pigmy’s Ladder, site of a recently-excavated neolithic flint mine. Miss Boorman has visited before, and does not enjoy claustrophobic spaces, so elects to remain behind. The other two candidates descend into the mine… and are only recovered, unconscious, when it is nearly too late.

Miss Boorman, fearful that she may be accused of attempted murder, promptly contacts her old friend Laura Gavin (Miss Boorman was first introduced in 1942’s Laurels Are Poison), assistant to Dame Beatrice Lestrange-Bradley, the noted psychologist and regular consultant to Scotland Yard and the Home Office. In Nodding, Mrs. Bradley begins her investigations by predicting that the two young women poisoned by what has been identified as calor gas were not the intended target (Calor is a still-extant trade name for a brand of bottled butane and propane gases, used at the time of The Nodding Canaries principally for small cookers and heaters, such as those used in camping and boating, Americans may compare with Coleman gas lanterns and camp stoves). Mrs. Bradley’s prediction, that there is a body somewhere in the diggings, is proved correct.

Gladys Mitchell’s rendering of a Norfolk accent may prove distracting to readers from outside the UK. It is differentiated not only from the sole character from the West Country, but from a Scots character, and of course from Mrs. Bradley’s own unimpeachable RP. Mitchell was sometimes taken to task by readers for her rendering of accents in text, but overall it does not greatly distract from the story. I am not enough of a linguist or ethnographer to speak to its overall accuracy here.

The remainder of the book focuses largely on the local archaeological society which excavated the Pigmy’s Ladder site: the un-mourned victim was one of their members, and whoever murdered him wanted to be doubly sure that he was dead, for he had already been struck a vicious blow to the head before being dumped in the mine with open cylinders of bottled gas to poison him. As the plot unfolds, there’s a lot of driving about, as Mrs. Bradley elects to interview different witnesses in Scotland, Devon, and Yorkshire, which just seems to clutter the plot.

There are many amusing touches in The Nodding Canaries, from Mrs. Bradley’s assistant Laura being called by her school nickname of “Dog,” to Laura’s child, Hamish, making several brief and precocious appearances. Mrs. Bradley herself is a source of dry, omniscient wit, which will either endear her to the reader or irritate said reader substantially.

But it is when elements of the plot contradict themselves that things become genuinely odd, because the contradiction is needless, and when I first read it, I thought that I must have fallen asleep while reading and missed something vital. The incident occurs in Chapter Fifteen (“The Trail of a Murderer”), and begins on page 205. In trying to track down a witness, we are given this statement:

“…Dame Beatrice called at his bungalow early that same evening on the off-chance of finding him at home, for he was not on the telephone and so she could not contact him and propose a visit.” (p. 205)

The witness, Barney Trundle, and his wife Petsy are at home, and after several pages of their evidence, during which time it becomes important to contact Miss Carol “Crikey” Timberley, Mrs. Bradley asks for her telephone number. It is at this point that the reader is treated to this exchange:

“’The name conveys nothing to me,’ Dame Beatrice confessed. ‘Have you her address?’

’Not me! Daren’t keep an address book with the names and telephone numbers of fair ladies in it! Petsy may have that address, but not me.’

‘Buck Romeo!’ said his lady, giving him a playful slap. ‘As it happens, I do have it, and as I was going to ‘phone her up, anyway, Dame Beatrice, to ask for a knitting-pattern back, you could help yourself to as much of the call as you liked. Let’s go, shall us?’

They went into the bungalow together. Everything, as Dame Beatrice had noted already, was in apple-pie order and completely bare of books, although half-a-dozen glossy magazines were arranged neatly on an occasional table. The telephone was in the hall and was upholstered by the agency of a pink silk doll. Mrs Trundle removed this and rang up her friend…” (p. 209, emphasis mine)

So, which was it? Don’t get me wrong, I understand that writers can change their minds mid-stream. But given that simply changing the earlier line to something like “Dame Beatrice called on the off-chance, as she could not reach Barney Trundle on the telephone,” this was one of those moments where I wondered how often it is that editors simply miss glaring errors in continuity.

Mysteriously appearing telephones are not the only problem in the book. The ending, also, seems slightly off, not due to a mis-statement of the facts of the case in the book, but simply because the second murder is left unresolved. That murder, committed using a moderately obscure poison called salts of lemon (more properly potassium hydrogenoxalate) a chemical used, according to a rather sparse entry on Wikipedia, in “photography, marble grinding, and to remove ink stains,” is suggested by Mrs. Bradley, almost off-handedly, to have been committed by the first victim, and the matter is allowed to drop. Ours is a chaotic, disordered world (whatever illusions we might maintain to the contrary), and part of the pleasure of reading detective fiction is seeing the disorder put right by characters who represent our desire for neatly tied-up loose ends. The Nodding Canaries, on the other hand, leaves loose ends and red herrings strewn about the place like a particularly irritated cat let loose in a factory improbably processing both yarn and fish. It as though Mitchell herself changed her mind about what sort of story she was writing several times during the construction of the book. Readers who like their fictional worlds neatly tied up with string should probably look elsewhere.

Despite these issues, The Nodding Canaries (think of the historic function of canaries in mineshafts if the title remains obscure to you) is an entertaining read. It’s not one of Gladys Mitchell’s best novels, but it is enjoyable enough to merit your time, if only for its unusual premises and artful descriptions. Definitely one for Mitchell completists, and though uncommon, if you happen upon a copy, give it a go. Three and a half stars.

Reviewed 20 April 2016.

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About Bill Bibliomane

Reader and writer, collector and cataloguer. Amateur mineralogist, astronomer, numismatist, philatelist: I have too many hobbies. I'm somewhat compulsive when it comes to book shopping. Fortunately for my budget, there are no bookshops near to my home. Unfortunately, I've discovered the Internet. I started out reviewing books for my own amusement. Now I've decided to assemble them on my own site.
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