Mystery People Magazine, Issue 5 May 2013 by Carol Westron
‘The Saltmarsh Murders’ by Gladys Mitchell,
The tale of the Saltmarsh Murders is narrated in the First Person by the curate of Saltmarsh, Noel Wells, a wellmeaning if somewhat pompous young man. Noel works for the Vicar of Saltmarsh, the Reverend Bedivere Coutts, whom he does not much like, but he prefers the vicar to the vicar's wife, Caroline Coutts, a neurotic, viciousand judgemental woman. However, Noel does like Daphne, the vicar's niece, whom he is in love with, although at first he refuses to acknowledge this, and he is fond of William, Daphne's younger brother.
The book opens with nothing more exciting than a mild village scandal when Meg Tosstick, the Coutts' housemaid gives birth to an illegitimate child. Meg is no longer at the vicarage, having been turned away by Mrs Coutts and disowned by her brutal father. She was taken in by Mr and Mrs Lowry at the local inn. Apart from the outraged Mrs Coutts, most of the village accept that girls 'walk out' with their young men until they get pregnant and then they marry. What makes Meg stand out is her refusal to name the baby's father and village rumour has started to whisper that maybe she was seduced by someone of social stature, rather than by her village sweetheart, Bob Candy.
The village is full of eccentric characters, notably Mrs Gatty, who names all her acquaintances according to the animal they remind her of and her husband, who has long canine teeth like a wolf. Also there are the Lowrys who run the village inn and clearly are concealing a secret, and Edwy David Burt who lives with his actress wife, Cora McCanley, and his negro manservant, Yorke. The major landowner and most important person in the district is the irascible Sir William Kingston-Fox who lives with his Junoesque daughter, Margaret. Visiting Sir William is Mr Bransome Burns, a dyspeptic financier who is a suitor for Margaret's hand and Mrs Bradley, whom Mrs Gatty inevitably renames 'Mrs Crocodile.'
Noel's first impressions of Mrs Bradley are not flattering: 'There was something saurian about Mrs Bradley – about her eyes, about her lips, about the brain behind those eyes and the tongue behind those lips. She passed the tip of a small red tongue over the lips and then pursed them into a little beak, and I remember being rather surprised to note that the tongue was not forked.'
Mrs Bradley had been a schoolfellow and close friend of Margaret's mother and she intends to prevent her marriage to Bransome Burns, even though Margaret's father approved of the match. 'Her theory... was that married happiness was extremely rare in any case, and was impossible of achievement when one of the protagonists was forty-seven and had a weak digestion, and the other was twenty and played the ukulele very indifferently.'
Strange events occur in the village: someone is climbing on the roof of the Burts' bungalow and frightening Cora; Mr Gatty is locked in the Church crypt; the vicar is attacked and chained up and then Meg Tosstick is murdered.
Suspicion falls on Meg's sweetheart, Bob Candy, but Mrs Bradley is certain he is innocent and, with Noel's assistance, sets out to reveal the truth and briefs her son, the eminent King's Counsel, Ferdinand Lestrange to represent Candy. In typical Mrs Bradley style, she describes her son as, 'A clever boy. Nearly as clever as his mother, and quite as unscrupulous as his father.'
Cora disappears from the village, ostensibly because she has had an acting offer and has left her husband in order to return to the stage, but Mrs Bradley believes otherwise. The plot twists and turns until Mrs Bradley, in true Golden Age style, assembles all her suspects, by declaring she wishes to give a lecture in the Village Hall and sets the scene in dramatic style: 'At nine o'clock precisely, Mrs Bradley mounted the rostrum and commenced her lecture.
She had asked particularly that the hall might be in complete darkness except for the light of the magic lantern, so that we could not see her, we could only hear her really beautiful voice coming across out of the void...'
She explains the reason she has asked them there: “Tonight I am going to show you the mistakes made by persons who had a hand in committing the Saltmarsh murders. At the end of my lecture I think that everybody in this hall will know the author of the deaths...”'
The Saltmarsh Murders is great fun. It is a spoof of such classic Golden Age mysteries as The Murder at the Vicarage, and it is a lively comedy of manners, with more than a hint of PG Wodehouse in the cast of eccentric characters.
Noel Wells, the narrating character, could have walked straight out of a visit to Blandings Castle. Incisive,
mischievous and eccentric, Mrs Bradley dominates the action whenever she appears. However there is a darker note to the book, especially in the final pages, which have turned from Noel's narration to the pages of Mrs Bradley's diary. The final line in her narration is both sad and sinister, but you have to read the book to appreciate it.