Gladys Mitchell’s detective novels, featuring the gloriously eccentric Mrs (later Dame Beatrice) Bradley, seem to have fallen rather out of favour, and are just now being republished in a piecemeal fashion. Mrs Bradley is independently wealthy, a practising psychoanalyst, and is rather unconventional. She seems to terrify everyone with whom she comes into contact, and is frequently described as having something of the pterodactyl about her.
This book, however, begins at Hillmaston School, at a staff meeting where the school’s performace is being decided on. Eventually, The Mikado is chosen, after unassuming arithmetic mistress Miss Ferris offers to underwrite the production. The staff of the school are introduced to the reader in this way, and Mitchell delineates them well, giving them their own foibles, characteristics and preoccupations. Particularly pertinent to the plot is the fact that Mrs Boyle, English mistress, was formerly an actress, but other members of staff are distinguished in their fields.
Despite Miss Ferris’s very timid and inoffensive character, by the time of the performance she has managed to acquire knowledge of two guilty secrets, has seriously annoyed the games mistress, Miss Camden, has inadvertently seriously and irretrievably damaged Mr Smith’s latest model (he is the art master and a sculptor), and may have attracted the attention of a suspicious widower at her aunt’s boarding house. Added to this, she is not very good at the part she is playing, that of Katisha, in the opera.
Poor Miss Ferris fails to turn up for the performance, so that Mrs Boyle, producing, has to step into her shoes, and plays the role magnificently and to much acclaim. It’s only afterwards that Miss Ferris is found dead in one of the bathrooms, and the inquest rules her death as suicide. However, the headmaster, feeling certain that the death was not suicide, calls in Mrs Bradley and asks her to investigate.
At first, Mrs Bradley poses as a teacher – she’s not bad at it – during her investigations, and all sorts of secrets and lies come out, Mrs Bradley seeing through most people’s attempts to prevaricate. The suspicious widower provides a sub-plot which is half farcical and half dangerous, and the solution is eminently surprising.
I find Mitchell’s books sometimes slightly confusing – which probably means that I don’t read them with sufficient attention – Death of a Maiden, for example, has so many metaphorical plates spinning in the air that I got confused between what was really happening and what the characters were thinking was happening, and who was the intended victim anyway. Death at the Opera, however, is not one of them: it’s lucidly plotted and the motive for the crime, while completely unreasonable, is actually plausible, and Mrs Bradley’s reasoning is sound and interesting – not getting sidetracked by the red herrings in her path.
There’s a lot of rather dry humour in this book, and a slightly satirical tone – Mitchell was herself a teacher, and skewers the staff room relationships very well. Another book, Tom Brown’s Body, also set in a school, focusses more closely on the pupils than on the staff, but is equally well-drawn and believable.
If you’ve watched the televised Mrs Bradley Mysteries with Diana Rigg as Mrs Bradley, don’t expect any of the plots to be the same: the TV version of Death at the Opera uses the production of the Mikado from the novel, but the school is quite different, and the murderer and the murderer’s motivations are not the same. That’s not to say that the series is bad, nor that Diana Rigg isn’t excellent as Mrs Bradley (though playing a character rather different to Mitchell’s), just that the two versions are completely different animals.