It's an understatement to say that Gladys Mitchell was one of the least conventional mystery writers of the 20th century, whose fondness for preternatural events, evoking magical scenes and settings, off-the-wall plotting and uncanny knack for creating believable children gives her detective stories a fairytale-like quality. This is further heightened by the presence of her series detective, the shrieking, cackling, rib-probing pterodactyl-like Mrs. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, who's not unlike an unsightly Good Witch of the North.
However, this doesn't always make her books good detective stories as fair play is often drowned in the imaginative wealth and complexity of her plots, and plot threads are sometimes left dangling in the wind. The best example of this is her often touted masterpiece, The Rising of the Moon (1945), which is narrated by a 13-year-old boy and is better read as a coming-of-age story with strong mystery elements than as a pure detective story – because the ending leaves you scratching your head in utter amazement (it's up to the individual reader to decide whether that's a good thing or a bad thing).
At her best, though, her books had the deceptive appearance of a conventional, British mystery novel, often complete with a charming country villages and quaint vicars, but they really are clever and delightful send-ups of the genre and brimming over with bizarre elements – such as witchcraft and chopped-up corpses (e.g. The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop, 1929).
Merlin's Furlong (1953) is a book from her middle-period and displays nearly all of her strength and practically none of her weaknesses, and begins in a very conventional manner when a rich and cantankerous old man invites his nephews over and starts playing around with his will. Surely an ill-advised course of action for any character in a detective story, but we won't learn immediately what happens to them as the story shifts focus from the crabby old geezer and his suffering relatives to three enterprising young men ready to embark on an adventure.
These three undergraduate students, Harrison, Waite and Piper, answer a peculiar advertisement beseeching the help of a warlock in handling a pin-covered voodoo doll. The man behind this strange request is the eccentric ex-college professor Havers, who dabbles in the black arts, and hires them to retrieve a stolen religious icon from the old man who's toying around with his legacy in his dilapidated home. Confusing? Complex? Not at all, and this is only the start of their adventurous journey.
The foursome, the three men and the professor's voodoo doll, embark on their risky venture to Merlin's Furlong, the name of the despot's home, but the region is cluttered with ancient ruins bearing that Arthurian name and they accidently end up at Merlin's Castle – coincidently the dwelling of the oddball professor who employed them to get his icon back. But when they finally arrive at their correct destination, after trampling around the country side, they don't find the item they set-out to retrieve, but the old man sprawled out on his bed with a sizable dent in his skull – and when the local police discovers the body of professor Havers in his coach-house they have a heck of a lot of explaining to do.
Enter Mrs. Bradley, whose expertise in witchcraft is much needed to unravel this dazzling complex plot that involves a pin-covered voodoo doll, a desecrated gravesite of a suicide victim who was buried twice, a secret room stuffed with artifacts, a dead cat and a live monkey, a midnight cult and a change of heirs.
Mitchell neatly ties all these plot threads together and satisfactory accounts for all of them, which makes Merlin's Furlong one of her most rewarding books. The plot perfectly exhibits her sheer, unrivalled and wild imagination, but nothing of the detective story is lost along the way – which was as nice as a surprise as the solution itself.
So if you haven't met Gladys Mitchell and Mrs. Bradley before, this is a great book to make their acquaintance and it's widely available again thanks to the wonderful people at the Rue Morgue Press. May their books grace our bookshelves for many decades to come!