A charming late-era entry into the Mrs. Bradley mysteries, Uncoffin’d Clay is something of an inversion of the typical detective-story structure. Rather than presenting a rigorous clue-hunter stalking their foul, murdering prey (and it must be said that Gladys Mitchell’s mysteries hardly ever fell into this category), there is a far more naturalistic feeling to this tale of mantraps and murder in small Dorset villages. Set during a spring in what must be 1979 or 1980 (one of the characters remarks on having elected a woman as Prime Minister; Thatcher was elected in ’79, and the book was published in 1980), it features the seemingly ageless Mrs. Bradley only lightly, as was sometimes the case in the later books.The action revolves instead around Michael Lockerbie, a writer who has come to the Dorset village of Strode Hillary to visit his brother Innes and his brother’s wife Mary. Of advancing years and retired (perhaps still as spry persons in their 50s or early 60s), their
interests are in the pursuits which traditionally occupy denizens of villages and small towns: community, church, and taking in the scenery and fresh air on long drives and walks. The fact that one of the prime residences of Strode Hillary, Bourne Hillary, has been recently bought by a wealthy Arab, who has installed his family and retinue there, has upset the tranquil life of the village in many ways, and when a pot shot is apparently taken at the sheik in question, and his son falls victim to a carelessly discarded mantrap, order is further upset. Who is responsible, and why? The local shiftless youth seem to be to blame, but which — if any — of them are guilty, and why? And if they are guilty, why have they disturbed the botany experiment of a local primary school, with various water plants in a sunken punt?
Of course, these events are not what they seem, but the reader treated to learning about them far more naturalistically, and finds them unfolding as one would in real life, rather than being given some form of limited omniscience which, no matter how temporarily pleasing, comports in no way with real experience. The story unfolds as it might do in reality. This does not mean that all is pleasant; some of the lingering hostility toward the new landlords of Bourne Hillary may strike a harsh note with readers thirty-five years later, and Mitchell’s notions, although surprisingly au courant in anyone of her advanced age at the time she wrote this book, occasionally betray themselves as being distinctly Edwardian. But on the whole, these are minor considerations which do not detract from the enjoyment of the story (at least, to this particular white male Anglo-Saxon).
The character of Michael seems to serve the dual purpose of being a foil for Mrs. Bradley, and being a representative of Gladys Mitchell’s own views. When Michael makes excuses to avoid what would clearly be an onerous task of speaking to a primary school about ‘being a writer,’ one can almost hear Mitchell’s own private view of the imposition that such a demand would make. There is a joke in the first chapter about having a flutter on a horse called Oofy Prosser, as both of the brothers are Wodehouse fans, which is deeply appreciated by this Wodehouse fan. Indeed, in little touches throughout the book, the attentive reader will encounter a number of whimsical asides and observations, indicative of the still-sharp awareness of the world around her, even at the advanced age of 79. And long-time Mitchell readers will be heartened or dismayed, according to their preferences, by brief appearances both of Dame Beatrice’s long-suffering chauffeur George, and her secretary-cum-assistant, Laura Gavin (née Menzies). If the plot of the mystery itself falls apart a bit by the end, is that the end of the world? It must be said that for an author who wrote over sixty detective novels under her own name, and about a dozen others in various guises, you don’t come to a late Gladys Mitchell novel solely for the plot: atmosphere and characterisation have a lot on offer.
Originally published in the UK in 1980 and in the US two years later as part of St. Martin’s Press’ abortive effort to bring Gladys Mitchell’s work to an American audience, Uncoffin’d Clay is written with a good deal of love for countryside and for the benefits of a quiet life, outside of the overcrowded and blustering cities. The danger of the occasional murder while in a rural idyll seems easily worth the price of admission. If it is not one of Mitchell’s best books, it is also certainly not one of her worst.
Originally reviewed 14 August 2016.