The seventh mystery featuring Gladys Mitchell’s crocodilian sleuth, Mrs. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, is set in the depths of rural Oxfordshire presumably in the middle-1930s. As Miss Mitchell spent her youth in the village of Cowley, south-east of Oxford town, for her, this is also something of a return to her roots. The titular feature of this particular novel, the often unjustly-derided ceremonial English tradition of Morris dancing (which itself dates back at least to the 15th century), plays a key role to which the novel builds slowly (if you’ve never seen Morris dancing, videos for the curious are easily found on the Internet, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that in one form or another, such dances represent living examples of centuries-old folklore).
Stripped of its adornments, Dead Men’s Morris is a straightforward enough story. Mrs. Bradley is driven by her chauffeur George to stay with her nephew Carey Lestrange over the Christmas holiday. Carey farms pigs outside the village of Stanton St. John, as does his neighbour at the next farm, Simith of Roman Ending. When Mrs. Bradley first encounters Simith, he is in the midst of a ferocious brawl with his own nephew, Geraint Tombley. Meanwhile at Carey Lestrange’s Old Farm, Carey’s impecunious friend Hugh Kingston is staying in the vicinity because his fiancée, Jenny, lives with her adopted uncle in the nearby village of Iffley. The uncle, Fossden, has had an intriguing offer: obtain proof of a local legend, the Sandford Ghost, and split a reward of £200 (those are valuable, pre-War pounds, mind you) with Tombley. They have elected to go ghost-hunting together, in a plot point which is absolutely essential Mitchell.
But it all begins to go wrong when Fossden turns up dead late on Christmas Eve. The solicitor was known to have had a weak heart, and was apparently given a fright, but is that really what killed him? And when two days later on Boxing Day Simith is found, apparently mauled by a boar and left on Shotover Hill, is that death merely a coincidence? Mrs. Bradley is left with the unenviable task of determining motive, opportunity, and guilt among friends and relatives. Is the culprit one of the faithful Ditches, Carey Lestrange’s local household staff? Is it the dreadful Pratt, who always speaks in the third person singular and promises to be nearly hopeless as a Morris dancer? Or perhaps it is Priest, Simith’s former pigman, an ugly man with a nasty temper? The police have set their sights on an obvious suspect, Tombley, who benefits from his uncle’s death, but does being an obvious suspect make him the correct suspect? Probably not, at least, not in the world of Gladys Mitchell.
Mrs. Bradley herself is an active adversary for her unwilling investigatees in this story. When threatened by Simith’s pigman, the hideous, and meddlesome, Priest, she expertly flings a dart that removes his cap. Priest, shocked, demands to know what she thinks she’s playing at. Mrs. Bradley replies “Jael and Sisera,” making a reference to an unpleasant Biblical story from the book of Judges (Ch. 4-5) in which a woman kills a Canaanite who sought shelter in her tent by driving a tent-stake through his ear while he slept. In another episode, the youthfully-aged psychoanalyst traverses a lengthy and confined tunnel with no apparent ill-effects. She is also a brisk and active walker, traipsing over hill and dale in search of clues. All of these things together show, the reader can’t help but feeling, that whatever her age (a subject of some debate, as she appears essentially unchanged over five decades), Mrs. Bradley is a formidable opponent, and not merely intellectually omniscient (this would prove to be true in later books as well).
The climax of Dead Men’s Morris takes place some months later, when the murderer is revealed when they attempts to murder their final victim during the performance given by the local Morris side at Whitsuntide. Once again, Miss Mitchell has stuck primly to Detection Club rules: all of the clues that the reader needed to get there first are there, but said reader must be far more attentive than I was not to be caught out on learning the identity of the murderer. Whether readers find that experience frustrating or rewarding is down to individual taste.
Apart from echoes of the Wodehouse Blandings Castle stories (think Lord Emsworth and his beloved Empress), this novel is very much a peculiar but methodically plotted creature of its own kind. Dead Men’s Morris is one of those books where you genuinely need the map of the area, fortunately provided in the both the Michael Joseph and Rue Morgue Press editions, (modern maps are also somewhat useful but there has been a fair amount of development in the area since the 1930s and some of the features, like the railway line, are no longer the same). It also helps if you have some background in or awareness of the significance of heraldry, although both editions also reproduce the “warning flags,” decorated with heraldic symbols, which give some hint of the events to come.
Mitchell’s dedication for the book, written to her father, gives a hint at what she intended in writing Dead Men’s Morris; a story of the delights of the countryside, even as the setting for several murders (don’t bother with a Google translation of the Latin portion of the dedicatory text, as it’s hopelessly wrong; you’re better off sitting down with a dictionary or textbook and piecing it out). Achieving this feat must, to her way of thinking, have necessitated things like the painstaking reproduction of the local accents (something which, in this era of ill-conceived and increasing interconnectedness, you would now be far less likely to hear: we are regularly informed that regional accents are dying out), as a part of setting the scene. The fact that we now find reading renderings of regional dialects to be tiresome or unsuccessful is as much to do with our failings as with the author’s. Regardless, I can still wish that there had been another, better way by which to characterise the rural character of country folk, and to evoke Oxfordshire in the 1930s.
In the end, though, any book which compels me to hunt down references to the origins of Morris dancing, to seek information on elements of heraldry, and is helped by a close and thorough knowledge of the geography around Oxford is by no means a bad book. It will require patience and attention, however, and I know how difficult that can be to find in the era of flashing screens and banal tidbits. But give it a try nonetheless. Four stars.
Hutton, Ronald. The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400-1700. Oxford University Press, 1994.
Woodcock, Thomas and Robinson, John Martin. The Oxford Guide to Heraldry. Oxford University Press, 1988.
Reviewed 8 December 2016.