(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Speedy Death (1929), the first novel featuring perennial sleuth Mrs. (soon to be Dame) Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, set the tone for Mitchell’s half-century-long career as a mystery writer. In this novel Mrs. Bradley commits justifiable homicide (much as Hercule Poirot does in Agatha Christie’s last book to feature the Belgian sleuth). Mitchell’s refusal from the very outset of her career to make her villains totally villainous or her heroes and heroines totally heroic partly explains the difficulty critics have in coming to grips with her as a writer of detective fiction. It is ex ceedingly difficult to decide—since Mitchell consistently refused to give her readers direction in this matter—whether she regarded herself as a serious practitioner of the craft of crime writing or whether she wrote with tongue in cheek.

Considering the female sleuths created by Mitchell’s contemporaries Christie and Wentworth, Dame Beatrice is a model of the liberated woman. Although she knits, she is more similar to Madame Defarge than she is to Miss Marple and Miss Maud Silver. Not only are marriage (at least two and possibly three husbands exist in her past) and motherhood (she has at least one son, the eminent barrister Ferdinand Lestrange, possibly two) part of her experience; she is a woman of the world par excellence. It is not by coincidence that the first novel in which Dame Beatrice appears revolves around the question of transvestism, one of many subjects in the treatment of which Mitchell was ahead of her time. In the early novels Speedy Death and The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop (1929), for example, Dame Beatrice professes a belief in the necessity of birth control. Dame Beatrice is highly educated, sophisticated, and worldly wise. She is a psychoanalyst, soon to become psychiatric adviser to the Home Office, an amateur expert on the occult, and the recipient of too many academic honors to count.

Dame Beatrice’s intellectual sophistication is matched only by her fascination with the occult. Like her creator, she values her purported descent from a witch. As the series progresses and Dame Beatrice ages, her appearance becomes more and more witchlike. The relationship between madness and the supernatural is underlined by the titles of many of Mitchell’s books: Convent on Styx (1975), Merlin’s Furlong (1953), The Rising of the Moon (1945), Uncoffin’d Clay (1980), and Here Lies Gloria Mundy (1982).

Many of Mitchell’s early novels verge on being spoofs of the genre in which she became so firmly entrenched as a writer. Even Dame Beatrice’s ubiquitous knitting of unidentifiable objects serves as a parody of the fluffy pink items that Miss Marple’s needles produce or the practical baby clothes that result from Miss Maud Silver’s endeavors. In contrast to the limited...

(The entire section is 1181 words.)