Death at the Opera, by Gladys Mitchell: A Review

An unpopular and demuring school-mistress is drowned in a basin during a performance of The Mikado. But neither the outraged spirits of Gilbert nor Sullivan are present to account for the other events which surround the death of Miss Calma Ferris, and it is left to Mrs. Bradley to untangle a web of deception and misdirection which entangles the staff of Hillmaston School. And even Mrs. Croc will be hard pressed to find the reason behind “an epidemic of drowning…”

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Death at the Opera (First Edition, Grayson & Grayson, 1934)

The fifth Mrs. Bradley novel demonstrates that Gladys Mitchell’s plotting had grown increasingly competent as she worked to develop the character of her incomparable sleuth. The tale of a seemingly inexplicable murder of an unlikable maths mistress in a school covers a surprising amount of ground, with plenty of time spent to develop characters, and even to develop sympathy for the murdered Calma Ferris. Mitchell devotes careful effort to setting the scene, placing several important clues in the early chapters of the book, so readers interested in a fair-play solution to at least part of the mystery will want to read closely. Note that I said “part” of the mystery, because there is a second trick in store, which is not resolved until the book’s very end. It would be possible to guess the solution, but the reader would have to be expecting a trick of some sort to see the answer coming.

My first quibble with the book is that, contrary to expectations set by a title like Death at the Opera, it takes place mostly in a school. The story makes sense for the setting, and long-time teacher Gladys Mitchell was undoubtedly fond of the academic setting, but before reading this book my conception of it was completely wrong-footed by the weirdly inaccurate title. For the record, the original American publication went even further wrong by calling the book Death in the Wet, which although it conveys the water element of the story accurately enough, more generally implies rain and is therefore just as unhelpful.

To continue: the Hillmaston School is set to put on a play, and the demuring Miss Ferris has offered to pay the cost of a production of The Mikado, a perennial favourite from the Victorian era with all sorts of amateur dramatics societies and schools (and, at this time, only about fifty years from its first performance). As the production proceeds, the strife, jealousies and accidents of school life take their toll, reaching their dramatic climax on the night of the performance of The Mikado, when Miss Ferris, who is intended to play the role of Katisha, is found drowned in a deep basin in a “water-lobby” (an uncommon term for a sort of washroom or laundry-room; I finally pictured those deep metal sinks that you see in old laundry rooms, restaurant kitchens, and some laboratories). At first, the death is ruled as either an accident or suicide, but the Headmaster, Mr. Cliffordson, becomes uneasy about the circumstances.

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Death at the Opera (Penguin Books, 1942)

Mrs. Bradley’s appearance comes about a quarter into the book, when she is summoned by letter by the Headmaster, and agrees to appear in the guise of a maths mistress to investigate. Unfortunately, her fame is already such that this deception serves to fool no-one (unlike the similar ploy undertaken twenty years later by her as-yet unknown secretary, Laura, in 1956’s Faintley Speaking). Abandoning pretense, Mrs. Bradley begins questioning members of staff in an effort to find out the truth of the matter leading into the drowning.

Strangely, and almost entirely for no reason, Noel Wells, the ineffectual Wodehousian curate from Mrs Bradley’s previous adventure, The Saltmarsh Murders, reappears half-way through the story to aid the lizard-like psychoanalyst. Mitchell did periodically reintroduce characters, and some, like Laura Gavin (née Menzies) and friends, would make up a regular part of the cast after their respective first appearances. In this case, Wells fills in a minor role and does exactly what is required of him by the story, but I couldn’t help wondering whether he reappeared because Mitchell liked him, or intended to use him as a foil on more than one occasion (he turns up again five years later in 1939’s Printer’s Error).

As the mystery deepens, it becomes evident that there is a serial murderer operating on the scene who employs the curious method of drowning (remember Speedy Death?) to accomplish their ends. But the murderer is known to only drown victims for the murderer’s own benefit, so how did they hope to gain anything from the death of Miss Ferris? Why didn’t the lights work in the water-lobby? And does all of this have anything to do with staff jealousies, the covert affair, or the Art master who is using one of his sixteen year-old pupils as a nude model for a sculpture? It is not giving the game away to say that there is more than one mystery here, and that their collective resolutions won’t just require Mrs. Bradley’s ingenuity, but the reader’s as well.

Let me add a word or two on editions and adaptations. If you come to Death at the Opera via the 2001 BBC adaptation, you will find that apart from a name or two, the two versions are so different from each other as to have sprung from different completely different sources. Sad as it is for me to say, Diana Rigg is spectacularly mis-cast as Mrs. Bradley, the changes to the story seem only to serve the interests of a low-budget production. Mrs. Bradley, in this version, was a student of this school for deportment and is still resentful of it, but puts aside her feelings to investigate the murder of a teacher during a performance at which she is present as a guest. There is a good deal wrong with the television version, and apart from a few character names and the performance of The Mikado, it is almost entirely unrelated to the book. Actor Neil Dudgeon spends the hour looking hapless as George, Mrs. Bradley’s chauffeur and general factotum, and Peter Davison, a decade after his laudable turn as Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion, appears as Inspector Christmas, although neither of these characters appear in the book! Also look out for an early appearance of David Tennant as another non-book character, Max Valentine (making the actor score Doctor Who – 2, Midsommer Murders – 1). Overall, the television story goes in a lot heavier on the sapphic notes than Mitchell’s writing ever did, leaving the viewer to wonder just exactly what the scriptwriter thought that they were playing at.

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Death at the Opera (Sphere Books, 1989)

Fortunately, there are multiple editions of Death at the Opera from which to choose. Of course, the 1934 UK first edition, published by Grayson & Grayson, will be beyond the reach of most casual readers, as will the earliest American edition with the alternate title. However, there have been a number of paperbacks, including versions by Sphere Books (1989), Penguin Books (1942), Vintage (UK) (2011), and Black Dagger Press (1992). The Rue Morgue Press edition (2005) is also an option, although apart from the usual editorial problems, there is significant variation in the text from the UK edition (compare, for example, pages 49-50 of the Sphere edition with pages 36-37 of the Rue Morgue edition); whether or not this is a product of some much earlier editorial changes, maybe even dating to the first U.S. publication in 1934, I cannot say. There are even multiple French translations, including the 2001 version Mort à l’opéra from Éditions 10/18. Of these, the Vintage edition should be the most easily obtainable, and the most satisfying to read. Readers who prefer their books to only exist as pixels and electrons may also consider the Kindle edition published as part of a wide swathe of reprints produced (I’m still not entirely certain why) by Amazon, although this will require you to either own a physical Kindle device or a tablet or phone which supports the Kindle application.

However you decide to attempt it, Death at the Opera is one of Gladys Mitchell’s first real successes with Mrs. Bradley. It is a book that intrigues and challenges the reader, and, while it doesn’t ditch fair play entirely, it certainly demands that the reader pay close attention. The effort, though, is worth your time. Four stars.

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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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