Before you begin this book, assuming that you are not intimately familiar with the towns of Wroxham, Acle, Thurne, Barton Turl and the like, do yourself a favour and take a brief excursion round the internet. Search for “Norfolk Broads map,” or follow this link, if it still functions at time of reading. Alternately, select your own, as long as it gives the major towns, rivers, and lakes of the region (collectively, “the Broads,” specifically, the Norfolk Broads, as the Suffolk ones do not really come into play in the story). For more on the region itself, the Wikipedia entry is a good place to start. There is also some excellent information in an old book that I happen to own, called The Norfolk We Live In (yes, dangling participle, I know), so if you stumble across a copy of that it’s worth picking up. In whatever circumstance, you’re looking for a map of the area north and east of Norfolk, so however you accomplish it, do what works best for you. Print the map out and tuck it into your copy of The Worsted Viper, to refer back to as needed. Now read on.
As you will have guessed, geography, unsurprisingly, plays an important role in this 1943 novel by Gladys Mitchell. I don’t say that you will be unable to follow and enjoy the book without knowing the area, but I do humbly suggest that you’ll enjoy it a good deal more if you have a nodding acquaintance with the lay of the land. Norfolk is a wide, largely flat stretch of coastal plain, and the Broads are a series of interconnected rivers (including the Ant, the Bure, the Thurne; further south lie the Yare, the Chet, and the Tas) and lakes. These waterways make for enjoyable, calm boating holidays, and in The Worsted Viper, they are central to the plot.
Three characters return from Laurels Are Poison to enjoy their own boating holiday: Kitty Trevelyan, Alice Boorman, and Laura Menzies. They are enjoying their innocent idyll when they are caught up in mysterious doings. A shadowy boat passes them in the night, its oars muffled, and when they go ashore to investigate, the three friends find a tumbledown cottage wherein someone has left a murdered body, marked with the curious trinket of a viper made of worsted wool. Mrs. Bradley, in the meantime, is investigating, with the help of Detective Inspector Pirberry, the disappearance of one Amos Bleriot, whom she suspects of being connected to another recently executed murderer, Bone. The Bone case was brought to her by her son Ferdinand, and she consulted privately with him about it. As the body count increases, Mrs. Bradley suspects that the murderer is out to get her, personally, for her involvement.
This is, in many ways, a darker and more murdery Mrs. Bradley novel than previous efforts in the canon. As important as the geography of place is the characterisation of the murders themselves – for there are murders aplenty. With the highest body count of any Mitchell novel to date, The Worsted Viper is also a tale of cold, calculated killings, carried out repeatedly, and for no good reason.
Unfortunately, the greatest weakness of The Worsted Viper is also, in an odd way, its strength, for the puzzle that reveals the murderer is only obvious — but then from a fairly early point in the book — if the reader speaks French. If you do, then the identity of the murderer(s) will be fairly straightforward. If not, then yes, you will muddle through until the penultimate chapter. There are other flaws as well: The Worsted Viper shifts focus from “central” characters several times, and not always in the most convenient of ways. When the “three musketeers” make a reappearance, for example, they then vanish again not long after, only to re-emerge when one of them is kidnapped. And by the time that situation is resolved, a second kidnapping seems almost gratuitous.The resolution, although fairly satisfying, does leave some threads loose and some questions unanswered, but on the whole The Worsted Viper is an entertaining tale that carries the reader away right to the last page.
Editions of The Worsted Viper are, fortunately, not as uncommon as some of Gladys Mitchell’s books from this period. Severn House reprinted it in 1980, and Minnow Press subsequently brought another edition out in 2010. Readers with access to the American Kindle store can also find it for what was, at time of writing, a remarkably reasonable price. Whichever version you choose, having a good map by your side as you read will still be useful; it will also put you on to a typographical error in the Minnow Press edition, where the town of Martham is erroneously referred to as “Marsham” (p. 100). There are a handful of typos in the Minnow edition, but considering the scarcity of this title, I will take what I can get.
I mentioned the date of this novel, and once again, I must say that this does not feel like a war novel, except in one specific sense. That is this: The Worsted Viper, at least on the level beyond the murder mystery, feels like a love letter to a time before (or after) the War. With its carefree holidaying and mucking about in boats, the story, even if it is one of dark and murderous motives, is still just a story. It’s like living in 2017, and writing something passionately nostalgic about the 1980s, just for the sheer escapism of it all. Sure, the ‘80s had their own set of unique issues and challenges. In many ways, the issues of the day were just as fraught as those now confronting thinking people in Western democracies, and further afield. But the challenges, and the fears, weren’t the same as they are now, and so in some ways feel curiously lighter, and even less consequential. Also, we know that we survived them. Survival is, in the present moment, no longer guaranteed. Coming through today and tomorrow with our families and our lives and souls intact is no longer guaranteed. Which makes reading a story set in another time more comforting, in a way.
Part of the attraction of reading a detective story, even one written by an unconventional plotter like Mitchell, is the security of knowing that events occur in an ordered universe. Even in one of Mitchell’s stories, where the conventions and rules of the detective story are often complètement bouleversé, we are still relatively certain that justice, in some form or other, may be done in the end. Mrs. Bradley herself may be the avenging angel that delivers justice, in some of Mitchell’s novels. On some level, that’s why reading detective stories makes sense; the act is an effort to put order into an disordered, senseless world.