The thirteenth mystery novel published to feature the crocodilian psychologist Mrs. Bradley, 1941’s When Last I Died marries elements of several of the previous books (particularly the confused identities of The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop with the sustained menace of The Devil at Saxon Wall) into a satisfying whole. Indeed, this turns out to be one of the best of Gladys Mitchell’s books that I have read thus far (and I’m up to about a third of them, total). There’s always something to like and appreciate in a Mrs. Bradley novel, but When Last I Died goes the longest way yet to building a taut, suspenseful, and gripping narrative, right up to the closing pages.
The story opens with Mrs. Bradley being presented with a problem of two young escapees who vanished from borstal some six years previously. It is a case which bothers the Director of the Institute, and he confides in Mrs. Bradley that at the same time as the disappearance, the former cook, Bella Foxley, also left the Institute. She was to receive a legacy after her aunt died — under mysterious circumstances. This legacy was received shortly before Bella Foxley herself was tried for the murder of her cousin Tom Turney, a psychical researcher. Foxley was acquitted of the charge, and eventually committed suicide in a pond, by which she was living with her sister, Tessa. But the local village idiot claimed, confusingly, that Miss Foxley had drowned already, in a water butt outside of the cottage that the sisters shared.
This tangled web of events proves too much temptation for Mrs. Bradley, who decides that she wants to unpick the story and, if possible, get to the truth of it. However, she instead stumbles upon a tale of poltergeists, familial jealousies, deceptions, and, of course, murder. Questions continue to arise: what became of Piggy and Alec, the boys missing from the Institute? How did Aunt Flora really meet her end? If Bella Foxley is dead, then who is Tessa Foxley — is she really Bella’s sister? And is the queer old house with the ancient foundations really haunted?
Although written during the Blitz, this is not a war-time book. It is set before the declaration of war of September, 1939, putting it chronologically before both Printer’s Error and Brazen Tongue, just as she did with Hangman’s Curfew (I base this assertion on the fact that there is no mention in When Last I Died of any of the wartime security measures or rationing which appear in the two earlier books, but were also absent from Hangman’s Curfew).
What is particularly good in this book is the sustained tension, especially in the descriptions from the diary of the hauntings. Although an obvious solution for the poltergeists presents itself to mind, the diary narrative is quite convincing, and to me was reminiscent of the sustained atmosphere of menace in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, among others.
More typical Mitchell features are present in When Last I Died, too. George, the reliable chauffeur, appears once again, with his useful predeliction for fast driving and his Bunter-like hobby of photography. George also serves as light comic relief, with his curious choice of a red beret which he thinks that Mrs. Bradley has never seen (although she has, and disapproves) for his off-duty attire. Mrs. Bradley’s family also play several minor pivotal roles, from the grandson Derek (child of Ferdinand and his wife Caroline), and Carey Lestrange, a nephew from her first marriage and key player in Dead Men’s Morris and Printer’s Error, also gets a mention. There is also the usual reference to P.G. Wodehouse too: in this case, a reference to Bertie Wooster. For the record, I’m considering making a list of all the P.G. Wodehouse references in Mitchell’s books; their prevalence almost seems to have been one of the Great Gladys’s private jokes.
Perhaps one of the most striking features of the first American edition of this book, published in 1941, is the brief introduction by Mitchell, setting the book’s writing firmly during the German bombardment of London. It reads as follows:
“To You, American Reader, whoever you are, affectionately
I am a Londoner. Proud, too, of it. Whilst this book was being written, the Jerries made rings round it. They picked off seven houses, a railway bridge, and a block of flats. We put the Union Jack up on all these sites. Then they wiped out shops, factories, and the main road. It took time to put back the gas mains alone on that main road. Then they dropped high explosive in the garden six doors away. Still, here is the book.”
The tone of this is striking, almost as though it is a direct plea to American readers in favour of U.S. entry into the war in Europe. The historically-minded among you will remember that this did not happen until after 7 December 1941, so the timing is not unreasonable, especially if When Last I Died appeared early in 1942. The text of this note is also preserved in the Rue Morgue edition of 2005 (I assume that this Colorado-based publisher used the most readily-available edition as their ur-text).
Thankfully, there have been multiple editions of When Last I Died, making this excellent book fairly easily available to interested readers. Apart from the original 1941 Michael Joseph edition, and the 1942 American edition published by Alfred A. Knopf, a subsequent Mercury Crime edition appeared (although be warned, this is an abridgment which seems to follow the Knopf version, but omits the foreword to American readers). Although it was never released by Penguin (although thirteen other Mitchell titles were), the Remploy Press released a hardcover reprint in 1980, and the Hogarth Press re-issued it following Mitchell’s death in 1983 in their purple & white liveried edition. There have been two further editions, the Rue Morgue Press volume of 2005 (which again follows the Knopf version), and the Vintage (UK) edition of 2009. For reasons that are unclear (possibly involving copyright), it is one of the few titles by Mitchell which were not made available for the Kindle platform by Amazon in 2014.
What is odd, though, and must be briefly noted, is that the American edition is different from the British edition, as represented by my copy of the 1985 Hogarth Press edition. Instead of beginning with Chapter 1, the Knopf / Rue Morgue edition commences with a prologue, with a short passage not present in the U.K. edition, naming the Institute as “Shafton,” and including some lines not present in the British version. If there are further changes, I have not yet done a close enough comparison reading to locate them. Whether these alterations were undertaken by Mitchell or interpolated by an American editor is unclear. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of the prohibitively scarce and costly Michael Joseph first edition, but I would be interested to correspond with anyone who does have it and can answer a few questions about the text. And I have yet to see either the Vintage UK or the 1980 Remploy reprints, but I expect them to be more or less identical to the Hogarth edition that I read, although I may amend this review when I eventually do pick up copies.
If you are new to reading Gladys Mitchell, and not too concerned about the subtleties of chronology in the Mrs. Bradley novels, When Last I Died is an excellent place to start.