Laurels Are Poison
published in 1942
Whereas my fiction reading mostly centers around science fiction and fantasy, Sandra was always more interested in other genres, especially that of the classical cozy detective story. Her alltime favourite was probably Margery Allingham, but Gladys Mitchell was a strong second. Now while Mitchell was as prolific as any of the big name writers, averaging one novel a year, she never was as popular as an Agatha Christie or Ngaoi Marsh and her books weren’t reprinted as often, which meant they’re much harder to find than those of her more famous counterparts. Which is why Sandra had only a small number of Gladys Mitchell novels, but she read and reread them at least once a year. Of that small number, I think Laurels Are Poison was the one she reread the most, certainly the one she had read the most recent before she died. Which is why I decided to read it as well.
Laurels Are Poison stars Mrs Bradley, Mitchell’s version of the noisy old biddy detective ala Miss Marple (Christie) or Miss Silver (Patricia Wentworth). Mrs Bradley has been hired as head warden of one of the houses of a women’s training college. That’s her cover, but she’s really here to investigate the disappearance of the previous year’s warden, Miss Murchan, who was last seen at the end of term dance and never came back. As soon as she arrives at the college, it’s clear somebody doesn’t want her to start her investigation, as amongst a flood of not very funny but innocent practical jokes some not so innocent traps are set for her…
From that description this may sound like a bog standard detective story and in some sense it is, but the mystery of Miss Murchan’s disappearance honestly isn’t the reason you keep reading. Instead it’s the setting and characters that make this book. Mrs Bradley is the usual, sensible, almost omniscient older woman detective, but for once she’s not a spinster, but instead a modern career woman, well known in her field and who has been married several times. Her physical appearance as described by Mitchell through the viewpoints of her other characters is not flattering, “the old crocodile” being the mildest.
Alongside Mrs Bradley, several other characters are followed: Deborah Cloud, the sub warden and three students Laura Menzies, Kitty Trevelyan, and Alice Boorman, the “three musketeers”, all four of which will wittingly or unwittingly help Mrs Bradley solve the mystery. Deborah Cloud, or “the Deb” as the students call her is mostly there as the innocent bystander there to ask the questions the readers might have, while the three musketeers, especially Laura, play a more active role in the resolution.
For long stretches of the book the mystery itself disappears to the background as we instead follow the daily lives of the three students and the sub-warden, all done in a jolly hockeysticks, slangy tone of voice which took me some time to get used to; some examples can be found at the Gladys Mitchell website. Overall the tone of the book is light, amusing, slightly tongue in cheek. What surprised me was the date of publication: 1942, which you wouldn’t have known from the story, with no mention of war whatsoever. Instead it reads as if it was written in the 1930ties.
On the whole I found the book a bit of a mess; entertaining but not very focused. I think I will read more Gladys Mitchell, if only because Sandra rated her so highly, but this wasn’t as good as I expected it to be.