The 14th Mrs. Bradley novel marks the opening of a new era for the character, and also does an admirable job of papering over the cracks in the gap between the first thirteen, pre-Laura Menzies novels, and all that were to follow. One could scarcely imagine that, at the time, Miss Mitchell was aware of the momentous nature of the introduction of this new character. Unless, of course, she planned it all from the start. If so, planning for fifty-two novels is quite the long game.
Mrs. Bradley is asked to the Cartaret Training College to investigate the disappearance, of Miss Murchan, the former Warden of Athelstan House at the College. Her disappearance after going to fix her hair during an end-of-term dance has caused some consternation. When Mrs. Bradley takes up residence, things immediately begin to happen. Tripwires have been set up across some doorways. There’s an unauthorised bonfire outside. A cook goes missing. A girl’s lovely hair is crudely and cruelly shorn. Oh, and there’s one skeleton too many, and in a nearby limestone pit, someone’s been cooking something rather large. With a numerous student body, divided into different houses with resonant names from English history, suspects are available a-plenty, and the danger seems very real.
All of these typically macabre elements are played out against characters, with the introduction not only of Mrs. Bradley’s nephew Jonathan, but with other new characters: Deborah Cloud, trainee teacher, and the unforgettable trio of “the Three Musketeers,” Kitty Trevelyan, Alice Boorman, and, of course, Laura Menzies (or “Dog,” as she is affectionately known, “half-Scot, half-Amazon”). Those who have read later entries in Mitchell’s canon will realise that, of course, this is a consequential meeting… even if Mitchell herself doesn’t necessarily seem to know it. Although Laura makes her first appearance here, it is Deborah who often seems like the annointed favourite and probable future collaborator with Mrs. Bradley (she does reappear, as do the Three Musketeers, in the next novel, The Worsted Viper). For that matter, practically every member of the Lestrange-Bradley ménage introduced to date makes an appearance, with only Lady Selina missing out on the festivities. These include Sally Lestrange (Brazen Tongue), Carey Lestrange (Dead Men’s Morris et suivant), and even Denis, who asks at Christmas if Mrs. Bradley has brought a boar’s head (a reference once again to events in Dead Men’s Morris). The Ditch family even makes a brief appearance once again.
Stripping out the Lestrange Bradley family references, though, would yield a strikingly similar book to Miss Mitchell’s 1949 juvenile novel, The Seven Stones Mystery, right down to making the same Wodehouse-based “crime wave at Blandings” joke. Mitchell’s juvenile heroine Pam is basically a younger incarnation of Laura Menzies, in all of her glory. Of course, Mitchell wass very much a school-focused writer, so perhaps such comparisons are an example of being too exacting a critic. After all, this is the same author who wrote two separate novels about murders in nunneries.
A reader who comes to Laurels Are Poison via the medium of the 2001 television adaptation could be forgiven for wondering if they’ve stumbled into the wrong book. Don’t worry, you haven’t; it’s just that the television versions aren’t very good. Well, no, to be fair, it’s not even that. It is simply that the television versions have next to nothing to do with the novels. Apart from Mrs. Bradley and her chauffeur George (generally a much more minor, although frequently invaluable, character in the books), the script written for the television version of Laurels has next to nothing to do with the book. Gone are Deborah, Jonathan, Laura, Alice, and Kitty, as well as Miss Topas and the entirely of the setting and plot of the book. I wonder, indeed, if the scriptwriter even bothered reading it. Perhaps they briefly scanned the back cover, before dismissing the text out-of-hand? As I believe I’ve said elsewhere, the Diana Rigg stories are fine for what they set out to be: a sort of second-rate period-costume mystery series. They just should have been titled something else.
Back in the land of the actual book, there’s the usual fun with language to be enjoyed in Laurels Are Poison. Chapter 8 is entitled “Skirling and Groans,” “skirling being “the shrill sound characteristic of bagpipes.” A school mistress is described as being afraid that girls in her charge might become “hoydenish,” meaning “boisterous,” or possibly “rude,” and which word I was delighted to encounter, as I don’t recall having seen it before (p. 153). At one point, Laura, describing at person, says they are: “y-clept Mason” (p. 181), meaning “named” or “called,” which is a usage that I hadn’t encountered since reading Spenser’s The Fairie Queen as an undergraduate. Some readers may be irritated by challenges, but I enjoy find new things that require me to dig back in my memory or even — shock, horror! — require me to look something up in a dictionary. Or, if you’re reading on an e-reader, to touch the screen, lazily.
Of course, it can go too far for some. If poetry isn’t your bag, the lines in the penultimate chapter and the title of the final chapter may well be lost on you. For that reason, you should consider having a look at the text of Algernon Swinburne’s “Itylus,” and read up the background mythology, because it gives away the whole of the motivation for the central murder of the story. There is no doubt that Miss Mitchell enjoyed a literary flare, and this case is no exception.
In short, there’s a lot to enjoy in Laurels Are Poison. Most of all, for me, it drives home the point that reading the Mrs. Bradley novels in publication order is probably the most sensible way to go, unless you’re keeping a detailed spreadsheet or index-card cross-reference of recurring characters and their appearances, as well as the various settings, murderers, motives, literary references, and the like (which I’m certainly not…) For while it is perfectly reasonable to read almost any of the Mrs. Bradley tales as a stand-alone work, following the continuity of their publication order gives the reader the full richness of the growth of the world of Mrs. Bradley, and her approach not only to crime, but to life. Four and a half stars.
Reviewed 1 March 2017.