Written by Gladys Mitchell — First published by Grayson & Grayson in 1935, The Devil at Saxon Wall was the sixth book in Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley Mysteries. Beatrice Adelaide Lestrange Bradley made her debut in the 1929 novel, Speedy Death, and made a total of 66 appearances before taking her final bow in 1984. Earlier this year, Vintage reprinted 29 of Mitchell’s books and we picked this one to feature in Classics in September.
Mitchell was a member of The Detection Club, a group formed by British mystery writers in 1930 and which included GK Chesterton, Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie. Mitchell was regarded as one of Britain’s leading female authors alongside the likes of Sayers and Christie, but what made her writing stand out was the fact that she liked to challenge the crime fiction genre by exploring social and psychological issues in her books.
Saxon Wall, a rustic village in a remote part of Hampshire, becomes the quiet retreat struggling writer Hannibal Jones. He goes there hoping the solitude will provide him with some much needed inspiration. However, it’s not long before Jones realises that something very strange is going on, besides the fact that the locals still maintain beliefs dating back to pagan times.
Then there’s the mystery surrounding Neot House – the scene of a double tragedy. Ten years earlier, Constance Middleton was brought there as a new bride. Shortly after arriving, her husband started behaving strangely. The first tragedy stuck when Constance died shortly after giving birth. Within days, her husband followed her to the grave – after becoming seriously ill he died on the operating table. Their orphaned child was then sent away, but as Hannibal soon discovers, young master Middleton was not the only child to have been born in the village all those years ago. Does simple-minded local, Mrs Pike hold the key?
The village of Saxon Wall is full of buried secrets and if Hannibal’s housekeeper Mrs Passion is to be believed, dark goings-on. The villagers themselves are a decidedly odd bunch. Old Mrs Fluke (the estranged mother of Mrs Passion), is known for her skill with herbs, but also has a reputation for dabbling in black magic. The fact that she looks like a witch doesn’t help to lessen people’s fear of her. Then there are the elderly sisters who keep a pet goat called Gerald in their cottage, and insist on taking him on shopping trips.
To top matters of the village’s water supply seems to have dried up, the villagers are desperate for rain and terrified by a series of strange events that seem to indicate that the devil is abroad. Why is the local vicar unwilling to offer up prayers for the situation to be resolved? Bemused by the situation he finds himself in, Hannibal calls on his old friend, Mrs Bradley, to help him discover what’s going on. However, the discovery of a corpse at Neot House suggests that they must act fast if they are to discover the truth.
The Devil at Saxon Wall demonstrates Gladys Mitchell’s willingness to experiment with the crime novel as it was 1935. She doesn’t just create a story, she focuses on a particular issue and explores it. In this instance, witchcraft and its affect on the psyche. The crime is committed using the villagers’ fears as a veil to hide behind, and this enables the villain to go about his business unseen by the locals. Mrs Bradley is the reader’s guide, gently unpicking fact and fiction. As each piece of the puzzle fits together, the veil is slowly lifted and, along with Hannibal, the reader finally sees what has been going on.
Although at times it might feel like quite a complicated tale, it’s one you find yourself being drawn into nonetheless. Perhaps it is not the best introduction to Mrs Bradley, but it is still very much worth a read.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars