Sunday, October 30, 2022

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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