Originally published in 1941, this is the 2005 re-issue by Rue Morgue Press.
Thanks go out to Sergio over at his fabulous blog, Tipping My Fedora, for getting me interested in reading Gladys Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley books. His enthusiastic review of DEATH AT THE OPERA did the trick.
(DEATH AT THE OPERA was my first choice, but it quickly became apparent that nobody had this book unless I wanted to pay big bucks and no I didn't.)
I had originally been put off reading Gladys Mitchell because of the television series starring Diana Rigg (whom I like) which I never cottoned to, though I did like the interaction between Mrs. Bradley and her neat chauffeur. And I loved the fashions.
At any rate, I've now read two Mrs. Bradley books: one I really liked and one I didn't finish. So I suppose I'll be reading more - one out of two isn't bad. But the next one had better be one I finish.
WHEN LAST I DIED begins with a note from the author:
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. They 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 explosives in the garden six doors away. Still, here is the book.
How anyone can continue to write under those conditions, I just cannot even imagine. I feel humbled by Mitchell's grit and steadfastness.
On with the review:
WHEN LAST I DIED makes use of a good plot ploy - the found diary. I do have a weakness for cold case type murder investigations.
Now, it says here in this book that Mrs. Bradley is a psychologist though, to my mind, a very strange one. She is so weird herself that it would make one pause before going to her with any problems of the mental sort. I never got a clear sense of what she looked like - I know she's old and kind of 'reptilian' and has an odd propensity for cackling (?) but that's about it. Just for a lark, I began to envision her as a lizard in a serviceable suit and hat. Not that that was what the author intended I'm sure.
I also noticed that in the books, the chauffeur, up front and center in the television series, is hardly on the scene when most of the action is taking place. He doesn't show up at all in the second book (the one I didn't finish), at least not in the pages I read. Too bad. I like the idea of a chauffeur as associate crime fighter.
At any rate, Mrs. Bradley decides to rent a house by the sea for a few weeks as part of some sort of psychological experiment resulting from her professional involvement with a school for delinquent boys. Her seven year old grandson occasionally comes to stay which I found a bit odd to begin with, since there had been sinister doings at the school and the experiment involves short term stays at the Bradley house by various boys. A kind of break from their normal routine.
The rental had, several years before, been the property of a young woman named Bella who was tried and acquitted for the murder of a cousin, a ghost hunter who'd been investigating a local haunted house. The woman had since committed suicide and the house passed to a servant who is happy to let the place for the summer.
In the meantime, Mrs. Bradley gets her hands on a diary written by Bella outlining events prior to the murder and the strange disappearance of two boys from the aforementioned school at which Bella herself had once worked. Then there is the suspicious death of Bella's aunt, a well-to-do old woman who'd choked to death on some grated carrots (?).
Mrs. Bradley is almost immediately suspicious of what she reads in the diary and decides that there's much more here than meets the eye. And as she goes nosing about it is soon obvious that she is correct, there is something rotten in this pleasant little village by the sea.
I was completely taken in and spent most of a night reading and trying to get to the bottom of a rather convoluted tale of twisted lives and ugly death.
Admittedly I found Mrs. Bradley hard to take - especially the cackling part - and as I mentioned, I had trouble visualizing her. She just didn't seem real to me if I can call anyone in this sort of story 'real' - but you know what I mean. But other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.
The other Mitchell book I began (my local library only had the two titles) was THE RISING OF THE MOON, a book I thought I'd like but didn't bother finishing. This one had Mrs. Bradley entering the fray very late in the story which was okay but leading up to her involvement, the tale was told from the point of view of two young, adventurous boys living in a village who come across a murder or two or three. Sounded good, but for whatever reason, wasn't.
But as I say, WHEN LAST I DIED is worth a look, if you can find a copy. And I'm still hoping to come across DEATH AT THE OPERA. Maybe an inter-library loan will do the trick.
Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten (or overlooked) books other bloggers are talking about today.