The Saltmarsh Muders by Gladys Mitchell
Out now in paperback from Vintage
The Saltmarsh Murders is one of six books reprinted (so far) in the Mrs Bradley Mysteries series by Gladys Mitchell. I’m not sure what made Vintage decide to do it but I’m glad they did. These books have been the inspiration for a short-lived 1998/9 TV series featuring Diana Rigg totaling a woeful five episodes. I guess they were too expensive to produce. There are 66 books featuring Mrs Bradley all written by Mitchell. I have a feeling that some are going to be more successfully than others. But I suspect that Vintage is presenting the cream of the crop and after reading The Saltmarsh Murders I think they are.
Anyway back to the book itself. The first surprising thing is the narrator. If you’ve watched the TV series Mrs Bradley turns and talks directly to the viewer so I was wrongly expecting this would be a first person or a third person story focusing on Mrs Bradley. But no the story is told by Noel Wells, the curate of the sleepy village Saltmarsh, who finds himself the sidekick of sometime detective and full-time Freudian Mrs Bradley.
Together they get to see into the lives of several key members of the village. And that is a clever device as Well’s gives all the connections to everyone who matters and can also report his own thoughts on the investigations as well as giving Mrs Bradley’s insights. He also acts as a buffer between what we suspect and what Mrs Bradley is thinking. There is an added touch at the end with an extract of Mrs Bradley’s Notebook for the period, which makes some of her actions a little more understandable, and if you thought she doesn’t care enough about what happens you might think differently after reading it.
I’d expect that Mitchell herself had several notebooks when writing this tale as the plot is complex for such a narrow cast. The complexity comes from the examination of human nature and the way we think and act. She unravels the means, motive and opportunity of the murder. And as she pulls and follow the threads as the suspects mount up as there are plenty of motives for murder here.
It’s not all serious though Mitchell is having fun through Mrs Bradley you can tell as not only is she a wonderfully colourful she is sharp and humourful even if it’s a morose at times. She is presenting larger than life characters for her to examine and analyse and she makes references to other writers and their characters offhandedly.
Now this is a novel of its time. It was published in 1932 and it’s setting includes servants and one of these servants is black. He plays an important part of understanding of the crime. The reason I mention it is that I’m glad that one part has been left uncensored. The part has strong racist remarks from one character to another but they are a reflection of the characters that make them. I must admit to be a little shocked at their inclusion in the original but it would have been wrong to change them now because they may cause offensive. I hope it’s not just me that thinks that. And it’s more eye-opening moment for how far we’ve come rather than something that overshadows the novel.
I guess it does illustrate why books are reflections of the time they are written. Even if they are larger than life they do show a mirror to the thinking of the time on certain thought and feelings that might not shared now. There is a strong moral tone especially as we’re seeing things from a curate but he and the vicar are both practical when thinking of the actions of their flock. For example if a girl gets caught with child the couple end up marrying after the fact. And that is where the trouble starts here. She doesn’t marry but has the child and no one knows who the father might be.
There is much to love in this novel. The characters. The plot. The read hearings. The nostalgia for simpler times. And the knowing that there are several motives that can be found if one looks hard enough for murder even from people who wouldn’t go as far as to actually kill.
But most of all it’s Mrs Bradley that makes this worth reading. She makes a unique and intriguing detective. I’m looking forward to reading When Last I Died next then hopefully Tom Brown’s Body then only another 64 to go… well the other thee reprints… for now at least.