The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop by Gladys Mitchell

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The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop by Gladys Mitchell

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Melony Sanders
Reviewed by Melony Sanders
Summary: Old-fashioned crime fiction set in the 1920s. Not quite Agatha Christie, but not a bad read.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: May 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-099546856

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A body is found in a butcher's shop one morning in Wandles Parva. It has been expertly chopped up and hung just like a piece of pork, but because it is missing a head, identification is impossible. There are soon suggestions that it must be Rupert Sethleigh, a land-owner who had supposedly gone to the US. His cousin, Jim Redsey is the obvious suspect. The two men didn't like each other - in fact, nobody actually liked Rupert Sethleigh. The local vicar's daughter, Felicity, and Aubrey, related to Jim and Rupert, decide to play detective. Before long, they are joined by Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, an elderly woman who fancies herself a detective. Can they sort out the red herrings and find the killer?

I am deeply fond of crime fiction from the first half of the twentieth century, particularly of the many female authors who came to the fore - Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Patricia Wentworth, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy Sayers in particular. I was therefore surprised to find that Gladys Mitchell is a very similar author, despite being one I have never heard of before. Following her death in the nineteen eighties, her work has largely been forgotten, only recently being resurrected with the reissue of her books by Vintage Books. Having written some sixty books in the Mrs Bradley series alone, it has opened up a whole new opportunity to read books of this genre.

Mrs Beatrice Bradley is probably one of the strangest heroines I have ever come across. There is no sweet, butter-wouldn't-melt old lady like Miss Marple or Hilary Wentworth's Miss Silver here. Mrs Bradley is not a particularly pleasant woman at all. She is described as 'A small, shrivelled, bird-like woman, who might have been thirty-five and might have been ninety' who frequently stares rudely at people and gives 'hideous cackles' while prodding at them with a 'claw-like hand'. This would be the perfect description of a witch and really doesn't help the reader warm towards her.

Nevertheless, she is a quick thinker and manages to see ahead in ways that are almost supernatural. It is partly her awkward manner that allows her to find things out - people put her down as being eccentric and say more to her than they otherwise might. As a character, she is not at all likeable, which does make the book less attractive than it should have been - had she ended up as one of the victims, I would have been quite happy. There is little character development in the book, but that is common in a series - there may have been a lot more in previous books.

The other characters have a little more depth to them; particularly Felicity and Aubrey. However, as Felicity is just twenty and Aubrey is fifteen, there is a little bit of an Enid Blyton feel to the book, which isn't ideal for an adult reader. The author appears to be a fan of young people - the older the character, the more boring and annoying they are. Nevertheless, there is a great feel for the intrigues of the village, along with an impression that the author is being deeply sarcastic and more than a little humorous at times as she gives her opinion of the social network that makes up the village.

It is easy to see why the series disappeared into obscurity for a long time. Experts have suggested that Agatha Christie's books have remained so popular because the language used is plain and simple, therefore not dating much. Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers have suffered a little more, because the language they use is very reminiscent of the age. Gladys Mitchell, however, has filled her books with period language. Words and phrases such as 'you goop', 'bally' 'ghastly', 'blighter' and 'priceless old ass' are just a few - and they are littered in every conversation that the characters have. This does add to the period feel and I have no problem with it, but it is going to put an awful lot of readers off.

The story itself is a reasonable one, although I've certainly read better. There are so many red herrings that, at times, it is hard to follow and really does require a lot of concentration. It is actually very cleverly put together, but it is perhaps a little too clever at times, and would have been more readable with fewer twists and not so many characters. There are so many characters, in fact, that I would have appreciated a list at the beginning of the book to which I could refer. The ending finishes the book off very nicely - there is an extra twist which I really didn't see coming and most readers will appreciate.

I will certainly be looking out for more of Gladys Mitchell's work. Although not deeply impressed by the story, it is good enough to suggest that other books will be more promising. Most of all, I enjoyed the period feel and fans of the Queens of Crime are bound to feel the same. Vintage Books have made a sound decision to reissue these books, and for that, they should be commended. Three stars out of five.

You might also enjoy Murder in the Snow: A Cotswold Christmas Mystery by Gladys Mitchell.

Further reading suggestion: If you enjoy this type of fiction, you will also like Coroner's Pidgin by Margery Allingham and Murder at Deviation Junction by Andrew Martin.

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