Death at the Opera by Gladys Mitchell

Inoffensive’ female victim had a long list of enemies

The Death at the Opera edition published by Vintage Publishing
The Death at the Opera edition
published by Vintage Publishing
Mrs Bradley uses all her skills as a psychoanalyst to find out who is guilty of the murder of a teacher during a performance of the comic Gilbert and Sullivan opera The Mikado at an experimental co-educational school.

Author Gladys Mitchell evokes the school setting very well, revealing what she thought of some of the work and the rituals she herself was involved in during her long career as a schoolteacher.

Eccentric sleuth Mrs Bradley is called in to investigate by the headmaster of Hillmaston School after a young arithmetic teacher is found drowned in a cloakroom before she can make her entrance during the opera production in the role of Katisha.  Another teacher had to take over the part at the last minute and gave a magnificent performance.

Mrs Bradley is very clever in the way she talks to both staff and pupils and persuades them to open up to her. Gladys comes up with some believable, if eccentric characters, revealing what she must have thought about some of her teaching colleagues over the years.

The author brings back the Reverend Noel Wells, who was Mrs Bradley’s ‘Watson’ in her fourth novel, The Saltmarsh Murders. He becomes Mrs Bradley's sleuthing partner again when she travels to Bognor Regis to investigate the murder victim’s past. At one stage he puts his own life in danger to test one of her theories.

They encounter a man who has been acquitted in court of murdering his wife and Mrs Bradley, showing no fear, offers herself as bait in order to see what he is capable of. With the help of Noel, she ends up solving a different murder.

Author Gladys Mitchell keeps the reader guessing until the final pages
Author Gladys Mitchell keeps the
reader guessing until the final pages
Death at the Opera, originally published in 1934, is written in a very elegant and witty style and Mrs Bradley is presented as a more rounded person and less of a caricature than she was in the earlier books.

The detective cleverly draws up a list of people with a motive, and a list of those with the opportunity to commit the crime. She eventually dismisses all the people with a motive and all the people who had the opportunity. She then makes a list of all the attributes the murderer must have had to commit the crime and not give themselves away. This helps her to solve the case.

Mrs Bradley also solves the offstage murder of a woman who has drowned in an ornamental pond in the grounds of a mental hospital, who had been the wife of the music teacher at the school.

Gladys keeps the reader guessing until the last pages of the book, when she produces an incredible surprise.

I would agree with a review in the Observer newspaper, which said: “Mrs Lestrange Bradley is by far the best and most vital English female detective.” I think her fifth outing in Death at the Opera shows her at her most bizarre and brilliant.

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The Chinese Shawl by Patricia Wentworth

A Miss Silver mystery with a bonus romance for the reader

The action in The Chinese Shawl takes place among guests at a country house
The action in The Chinese Shawl takes place
among guests at a country house
After reading The Chinese Shawl, I was delighted to discover that Patricia Wentworth’s fifth mystery to feature her series detective, Miss Silver, was her best so far. The Chinese Shawl, which was first published in 1943, was less of a thriller, or novel of suspense like her first four Miss Silver stories, and more of a whodunnit.

However, the murder victim was portrayed by the author as such an unpleasant character that until their violent death 120 pages into the book, I was thinking more along the lines of ‘when are they going to do it?’ or, ‘I wish they would just get on with it and do it,’ until the murderer strikes at last.

The novel is set against the backdrop of World War II and features a group of young people, who are all closely connected with each other, attending a weekend house party at an old house called the Priory. Some of the men are enjoying leave, or are convalescing after being wounded, and a tangle of troubled relationships and past liaisons between them and the women add to the tension.

Unusually, for what is essentially a crime novel, there is a romance at the heart of the book and a family feud potentially standing in its way. Although the previous Miss Silver mysteries usually had a couple falling in love among the characters, the romance element in this novel is far more closely tied up with the plot

The Chinese Shawl is the fifth Miss Silver mystery
The Chinese Shawl is the
fifth Miss Silver mystery
Patricia Wentworth, who was born in October 1877, 145 years ago this month, supplies the reader with interesting details about life during World War II, such as the blackout rules, the damage caused by air raids, the plight of evacuees and the strain caused by the war on relationships, making the book still fresh and interesting for new readers in 2022.

Miss Silver has been invited in her capacity as a private detective by an old school friend to stay at the Priory and try to solve a series of thefts that have been happening. The lady detective gets to the bottom of the thefts quickly, but is still staying in the house when the murder takes place.

The detection element mainly consists of the police superintendent, Randal March, listening patiently to Miss Silver’s theories about the case, which are based on her instincts and judgment of character. The reason for his forbearance is that Miss Silver used to be his governess. Miss Silver produces a large quantity of pale pink and pale blue knitted matinee jackets and bootees while she is discussing the case with him throughout the story.

The plot is as intricately constructed as the baby clothes and, right at the centre of it, is the Chinese shawl of the title, a colourful garment worn by one of the main characters.

The murderer is not revealed until the end of the book, after the author has skilfully misdirected the reader during the last few chapters, while playing completely within the rules.

I enjoyed the first four Miss Silver mysteries but thought The Chinese Shawl was even better. I would recommend the novel to detective fiction readers who like a bit of romance on the side and enjoy a well-defined period setting.

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Vintage Murder by Ngaio Marsh

Novelist draws on her love for New Zealand and the theatre

Vintage Murder begins as Roderick Alleyn makes a train journey across New Zealand
Vintage Murder begins as Roderick Alleyn
makes a train journey across New Zealand 
Ngaio Marsh transports her upper class, English sleuth, Roderick Alleyn, to her native New Zealand in Vintage Murder, her fifth novel to feature the Scotland Yard detective.

Alleyn is on holiday while recovering from an operation and the story begins as he makes a long journey by train across New Zealand. On the train, he encounters a travelling theatrical troupe and among them is Susan Max, a character actress he had met in Enter a Murderer, Ngaio’s second novel. The detective had encountered the actress while he was investigating a murder that occurred on stage during the performance of a play at a West End theatre.

He gets talking to different members of the troupe, which is run by Incorporated Playhouses, and it is not far into the story when Alfred Meyer, the owner of Incorporated Playhouses, who is married to the leading lady, Carolyn Dacres, reveals to Alleyn that someone has tried to push him off the train.

After the train has arrived at its destination, Carolyn invites Alleyn to see the first night of the play and to her birthday celebrations with the rest of the company on the stage afterwards. At the party, as a surprise for his wife, Meyer has arranged for a jeroboam of champagne to descend gently on to the dinner table from above, but something goes horribly wrong and the theatrical manager is killed.

The latest HarperCollins edition of Ngaio Marsh's Vintage Murder
The latest HarperCollins edition
of Ngaio Marsh's Vintage Murder
It soon becomes obvious that the mechanism set up for the stunt has been tampered with and Alleyn is invited by the local police to sit in on their investigation. He sets aside his holiday plans to try to help them catch the murderer.

Vintage Murder, which was published in 1937, enables Ngaio Marsh to describe the scenery of her homeland as seen through Alleyn’s eyes. He meets a Māori doctor, Rangi Te Pokiha, and buys a Māori fertility pendant, a ‘tiki’, which plays an important part in the plot.

Vintage Murder was one of four Alleyn novels adapted for New Zealand television in 1977, when the role of Alleyn was played by the actor George Baker.

Ngaio’s inspiration for the travelling theatrical troupe was the Alan Wilkie Company, which she was once a part of, so it is not surprising that the characters and their behaviour come across as so real in the story.

The story does consist of a long series of interviews conducted by Alleyn along with the New Zealand police officers, which many on line reviewers have complained about, but I still think it is a well written novel that presents a good mystery for the armchair detective to try to solve, and I would recommend it.

Vintage Murder is available from or