The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop by Gladys Mitchell

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My good friend and fellow blogger Darlene made a visit to the UK from Canada last week, and it was lovely to have the chance to catch up with her in London. We had dinner in a restaurant on Charing Cross Road, which obviously meant that it would be silly for us not to pop into the second hand bookshops that were literally right next door. I fully intended on not buying anything, because I will be moving shortly, and goodness knows I have enough books to shift already, but it is a truth universally acknowledged that I can never resist a Green Penguin paperback, especially one with a ridiculous title, and so for a few pennies, Gladys Mitchell’s The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop found its way into my bag. As luck would have it, I had neglected to bring a book with me to read on the train (because I am still wading my way through Wolf Hall and it is too heavy to lug around) and so I started reading on my way home. I was instantly charmed by the period detail such as the terrible slang ‘it’s a bally nuisance, old boy’, the kleptomaniac vicar, the formidable matriarch fallen on hard times and the rather Madame Arcati-esque eccentric local crime solver, Mrs Bradley, and, though the plot was clearly going to be ridiculous, involving more unlikely coincidences than you could shake a stick at, I knew I was going to enjoy every minute. There really is nothing like a bit of harmless vintage crime fiction when you fancy an undemanding read.

In the absurdly named village of Wandles Parva, nestled in the rolling countryside of deepest Devonshire, Rupert Sethleigh, the village squire, mysteriously disappears. Staying with him is his shifty young cousin, Jim Redsey, who insists that Rupert has gone to America, but no one believes this for a second, especially not Mrs Bryce Harringay, Rupert and James’ overbearing aunt, who is also staying at the manor with her son Aubrey. When a headless dismembered body is found hanging in the local butcher’s shop window a couple of days later, the assumption has to be made that the body belongs to Rupert, but with a wide cast of characters with plenty of reasons to kill Rupert hanging around, finding a solution to his murder won’t be easy. Especially when a skull is found and then mysteriously disappears, young detectives Aubrey and the vicar’s pretty daughter Felicity turn detective and find all sorts of odd shenanigans going on in the woods, and Rupert Sethleigh’s lawyer reveals that he was just about to cut Jim Redsey out of his will. In between all of this sleuthing, there is plenty of opportunity to enjoy the odd tennis party and charming seaside excursion, transporting the reader wonderfully to a world with a gentler pace of life, where no one seems to actually have a job and the summer goes on forever. Just what you need when you’re drowning in exam marking!

I love the fact that these Green Penguins are so of their time, and provide a fascinating insight into the life of the leisured classes of their period. None of the ones I’ve read have been set anywhere other than leafy middle class enclaves, where everyone has a flower-filled drawing room with french windows opening onto the lawn, a library and a tennis court, and social life revolves around the vicarage, the tennis club and evening cocktail parties. Perky maids are the vessels of a mine of useful information, the vicar’s daughter is always lithe, beautiful and unappreciated, and everyone over a certain age is either eccentric or odious. In any other type of novel, these stereotypes would be unforgivable, but somehow, in crime fiction, they work. This is humanity drawn with broad brush strokes; the characters are recognisable and amusing but lack the individuality and complexity expected of a more literary novel, meaning that they become less realistic and so emotionally engaging. This allows for the necessary degree of detachment in the reader that is required when reading crime fiction; you can’t allow yourself to like people who might end up being murderers, after all! If you gave me one of the modern crime writers to read, I wouldn’t like it; I find them all very dark and depressing, because it’s too close to the often sad reality of the world we live in and therefore not escapist at all. However, give me a gentle caper around a village peopled with vicars and eccentric old ladies who are trying to find the murderer of a wicked cad who deserved everything he got, and I’d be delighted. If you ever find a Green Penguin, snap it up. And you might also want to check out the British Library collection of vintage crime novels that are being republished with lovely covers; they’re a bit hit and miss in my experience, but always entertaining nonetheless.

25 comments

  1. This recent revival of ‘vintage’ fiction is certainly feeding into a certain nostalgia factor (I also put Nigella’s domestic goddess and the Great British Bake-off into this category). I suppose we all yearn for a simpler, ostensibly happier period when we feel overwhelmed by demands, depressing news and uncertainty. However, as you say, they are entertaining reads, even if not all of them are of high quality.

    1. Yes absolutely. These are the times for escapism…which is why I can’t be bothered with so much of the latest modern fiction that is so overtly political. I get enough of that from the papers!

  2. I adore Mrs Bradley! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I always feel that Gladys Mitchell wrote because she had a particular theme she wanted to explore, and then would form a crime novel around it – rather the opposite to Agatha Christie – and even gladysmitchell.com says something to the effect that a cohesive plot is sometimes optional! However, as you have put so much better than I ever could, they are perfect escapism.
    (as an aside, Gladys Mitchell did continue writing pretty much one book a year until the 80s, as did Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie (up to the 60s). I think it’s amazing how these humble type of crime novels provide such a commentary on the social side of this quite astounding period of British history. I think it’s hard to find the post-war social change better described than in the lifetime output of one of these novelists)
    (as another aside – even in the 70s and 80s Mrs Bradley [who never ages] manages to find a traditionally run pub or country house!)
    I know what you mean about the British Crime Library – there are a few that you can understand why they stayed out of print for so long! However, I saved the two Christmas-themed ones to read in the run-up to Christmas last year though, and I can heartily recommend them🙂

    1. I’d be really interested to read more of her books – and you’re absolutely right about crime novels. They’re too often dismissed as having no real literary or cultural worth, but it’s all in there, if you know where to look! Yes I need to read those Christmas ones…this year!

  3. I’ve just ordered a copy! I love that it is described as being “superbly odd” on the dust-jacket -what an accolade. I discovered the Gervase Fen mysteries last year, which are absolutely wonderful. This sounds similarly charming.

  4. Oh, I do enjoy this kind of read, especially when my mind in spinning with this and that. Sounds like a good way to spend a summer evening. I’ll spend some time checking my inter-library loan system to see if The Mystery of Butcher’s Shop, is anywhere to be found hereabouts. Every once-in-awhile I come across a vintage read from across the pond in our second-hand shops. A trip is in order, and, who knows?

    Good to see you post today.🙂

    1. Yes – they really are the most wonderful window into a vanished past…though I do sometimes wonder whether anyone actually did live like that!

  5. I totally appreciate your love of vintage crime, but I have to say that this particular one sounds rather bloody for a supposedly gentle, middle-class setting–a headless dismembered body hanging from a hook in the window of a butcher’s shop?? Is there anything even remotely charming about that?

    1. Oh no – it’s not even really described. There’s nothing macabre about it at all. It’s hard to explain but the context of it all makes it more ridiculous than horrible, which all fits with the charm!

      1. Heehee, okay! I’m now imagining it as an pastoral pastiche along the lines of Hot Fuzz, which may not be quiiiiite right…

  6. Nice review. I, too, find a quaint satisfaction reading these rather dated murder mysteries.

    On a more serious note – isn’t it time that you read and gave us your views on the Elena Ferrante trilogy? It’s in the same league as Wolf Hall.- pure literature and very distinctive in its style.

    Royston

    1. Elena Ferrante? I’m going to have to look this up. Though if you want me to read a trilogy, you might be waiting a while…it has taken me about three months just to read Wolf Hall!!

  7. I feel exactly the same way about vintage versus modern crime fiction. Vintage crime carries an extra layer of atmosphere and fun with the ‘odd shenanigans’ and sometimes farcical events. Thank you SO much for recommending Murder Underground; it’s perfect! It starts off with a map featuring the Tottenham Court Rd stop running on to Hampstead, as you know, so the setting makes a wonderful souvenir read!
    So glad you enjoyed your book and the shy dimensions of those Penguins barely strain even the fullest of bookshelves. Speaking of books, please send yours along when you have some spare time. And thanks again, Rachel, for your lovely company in London!

  8. Oh Charing Cross Road, that temptress of a bookie paradise.

    What a delightfully twee novel. I love those quintessential crime novels, where – as you say – everything is stereotypically the same.

  9. As a rule I’m a bit of crime-free zone if you know what I mean – I don’t like graphic violence or taut psychological thrillers (especially those offering insights into the mind of a killer. But I do make occasional forays into the world of ‘cosy’ crime, and this does sound such fun.

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