(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

It is tempting to compare Gladys Mitchell, the creator of Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, to her contemporaries, Agatha Christie, the creator of Miss Jane Marple, and Patricia Wentworth, the originator of Miss Maud Silver. All three began writing mysteries in the 1920’s with novels that featured eccentric female sleuths who occupied their spare time with knitting. There the similarities end, for in Dame Beatrice Gladys Mitchell created a far more complex and controversial character than either Christie or Wentworth imagined. In her fifty-year career, Dame Beatrice turned into the sleuth many readers loved to hate.

Gladys Mitchell’s personal interests are clearly reflected in those of her female sleuth: Dame Beatrice is, among other things, a psychoanalyst and is reputedly the descendant of a woman executed for witchcraft. This intermingling of modern psychoanalytic theory and the supernatural in Mitchell’s fiction has made her books either maddening or absolutely intriguing depending on the biases of her readers.

An extremely literate writer, Mitchell constructs plots that are, at their best, exceptionally intricate and filled with digressions on various subjects (such as transvestism) and, at their worst, improbably convoluted. At times it is difficult to decide whether she is writing serious crime fiction or attempting an arcane spoof of the genre.

She was, however, nothing if not prolific, having written more than sixty novels in her fifty-four-year career as a mystery novelist. Her fiction is quirky and eccentric, in keeping with the fictional sleuth she created in 1929, but she is never dated. In fact, Mitchell’s greatest strength lies in her originality and her attempts at contemporaneity.