When Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder novel, Eight Million Ways to Die, was turned into a movie, the author wryly commented that he could enjoy the film on the same level as the rest of the audience, since he had no idea what was going to happen in it either. Having made so many changes, one wonders why the producers bothered to buy the book in the first place. Much the same can be said for Death at the Opera, one of five books by Gladys Mitchell filmed for the BBC’s Mrs. Bradley Mysteries. If you’ve seen that stylish television program—shown here in the United States on Mystery—rest assured that you’re about to enjoy a completely different story here.
Other than the title, the identity of the first victim and the staging of a faculty-student production of The Mikado, the television version went in a completely different direction from the book. The school in the book is not Mrs. Bradley’s alma mater but a progressive coeducational school run by an enlightened and thoroughly delightful headmaster. The school in the television version is a very traditional all-girls school run by an odious prig. Nor are the suspects or the motives behind the murders the same. George, Mrs. Bradley’s chauffeur, while a regular in many of the books, is given far more screen time in the film than he ever got in any of the sixty-seven Mrs. Bradley books. In fact, he’s entirely absent from the book version of Death at the Opera. But Mrs. Bradley is there, the essence of her character—though not her physical appearance—perfectly captured by Diana Rigg.
Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley is a brilliant woman who doesn’t suffer fools gladly but is capable of showing great kindness to others, whether it be an aging village woman, reluctant witnesses or the grandson she obviously adores. She is far more understanding of murderers than the police or other fictional detectives of the Golden Age (1913-1947), partly because as a psychiatrist she takes the time to understand their motives. This may explain why many of her murderers escape the gallows or long prison terms. Her moral values are her own, not society’s. She considers rape, because of its long-lasting psychologically damage, a far more serious offense than a murder committed in the heat of the moment. Indeed, she has even been driven to commit murder herself, obviously getting away with it. She certainly shows more sympathy than we would to the murderer in Death at the Opera whose motive—well, that would be telling.
Educated at several universities and holding a degree in medicine, she operates a clinic and is a consultant to the Home Office. She is the author of several books, including A Small Handbook of Psychoanalysis. Specializing in the psychology of crime, she also works as a private detective, though it is not always clear if she collects a fee for those services. “Her detecting methods,” as Michele Slung so aptly put it in Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, “combine hoco-pocus and Freud, seasoned with sarcasm and the patience of a predator toying with its intended victim.” Mitchell herself admitted that she was not surprised that Mrs. Bradley “annoys people,” since “she is never wrong... she has a godlike quality of being much larger than life, and of being so much superior to ordinary people.” She is also surprisingly skilled at a number of physical activities, from billiards to knife-throwing, and, on one occasion, when a cellist was unable to perform, Mrs. Bradley stepped in and played flawlessly, “smirking” at the audience’s enthralled appreciation “like a satisfied boa-constrictor.” She became a Dame of the British Empire in 1955.
As one of the most famous women in England, Mrs. Bradley’s reputation almost always precedes her to a crime scene. While at times this puts witnesses on guard—eventually Mrs. Bradley’s persuasive powers allow her to break through their reserve—it also prompts others to open up to her, partly because she has an extremely mellifluous voice. However, she is known to frequently cackle in delight, especially at her own brilliance.
Her voice may be the only attractive thing about her. Her reptilian, almost repulsive appearance combined with a bizarre fashion sense would make her a formidable subject for one of those extreme makeover programs so popular on television today. Mitchell based Mrs. Bradley’s looks on “two delightful and most intelligent women I knew in my youth.” She is frequently compared to a lizard (“dry without being shrivelled”) or to a “dreadful bald-headed bird.” One character went so far as to liken her to a pterodactyl. Her limbs were considered especially striking. “She possessed nasty, dry, clawlike hands, and her arms, yellow and curiously repulsive, suggested the plucked wing of a fowl.” Given her interest in the paranormal, Mrs. Bradley would probably be amused to hear herself described as “witch-like.”
Born in the 1870s, Mrs. Bradley is already in her mid-fifties when the series began with Speedy Death in 1929. If Mitchell had paid any attention to chronology, Mrs. Bradley would have been nearly 110 when The Crozier Pharaohs, the sixty-seventh and last book, appeared in 1984. Golden Age writers, however, felt no compunction to watch the calendar. Just as Ellery Queen (with one notable exception) remained frozen at the age of 35 in the books published from 1940 on, Mrs. Bradley reached her mid-sixties and stayed there. Others of Mitchell’s characters would age or not, depending on the demands of the plot. Modern writers of mystery series go to great lengths to develop and age their characters, making it almost a necessity to read their books in order. Golden Age writers were perhaps a bit wiser. For the most part, each of their books could be read independent of the others. The suspension of disbelief is, after all, one of the primary requirements asked of the mystery reader.
Mrs. Bradley’s closest personal relationships are with Ferdinand Lestrange, a superb criminal defense attorney as well as her son, and with his wife, Caroline, and small son, Derek (and later two further children, Sebastian and Sally, who, like their parents, age far more rapidly than their grandmother). She had at least one other son from another marriage (she was married and widowed three times in all, though absolutely no information is ever give about one husband), but he emigrates to India and is really never mentioned again. George, her chauffeur, appears in many of her books but she doesn’t acquire the Watson needed by every Great Detective until the arrival of her secretary, the attractive Laura Menzies, in the early 1940s.
When she died in 1983, Mitchell may well have been the last of the British Golden Agers still working at her craft. She was an early member of Britain’s famed Detection Club. Sponsored by Anthony Berkeley and Helen Simpson, she was inducted by G. K. Chesterton. Founded by Dorothy L. Sayers, it wasn’t an easy club to get into. When Mitchell joined their ranks in 1933, there were only thirty-one members. Club members took an oath to play fair with clues, to avoid sinister Chinamen, not to steal each other’s plots, and never to eat peas with a knife or put their feet up on the dinner table at club meetings. Mitchell’s favorite writers included many fellow members, including Sayers, Agatha Christie, Edmund Crispin “(that delightful boy”), and especially Ngaio Marsh. She had little use for the works of Margery Allingham and Michael Innes. The only American writer she enjoyed was, oddly enough (his books being so very different from hers), Hilary Waugh. Contemporary critics lumped her with Christie and Sayers among England’s “big three” women mystery writers but in fact less than a third of her prodigious output was published in the United States during her lifetime, whereas Marsh, Allingham, Josephine Tey, and Georgette Heyer were far better known.
Indeed, Mitchell earned her living not as a writer but as a teacher for most of her life. Following her graduation from the University of London in 1921 (she later earned an external diploma in history from University College, London, in 1926), Mitchell taught at a number of private (called public in England) schools until she retired in 1950. She returned to teaching in 1953 before retiring for good in 1961 at the age of 60, and no doubt this explains why she so often used schools in her books. She taught English, history and games. Her lifelong interest in athletics earned her membership in the British Olympic Association. Her first attempts at fiction in 1923 were rejected. She also wrote a number of books as by Malcolm Torrie and Stephen Hockaby. Born in Crowley, Oxfordshire, April 19, 1901, she never married (any knowledge of romance and sex in my books was purely academic, she explained). She died on July 27, 1983.
Most of our introductions to the books in this vintage reprint series are carved from original sources. With Gladys Mitchell we were privy to a wealth of information gathered by abler hands. We borrowed freely from essays by B.A. Pike, Andrew Osmond, Nicolas Fuller, William A.S. Sargeant, and Jason Hall, the latter of whom maintains a remarkable website devoted to Mitchell (www.gladysmitchell.com). What is good in this essay is due solely to their efforts and any errors belong exclusively to us.
Tom & Enid Schantz