When Last I Died – Gladys Mitchell

Mrs Beatrice Bradley, psychologist & sleuth, is visiting a reform school for boys, trying out her theories on the new Warden of the Institution. The Warden is more concerned about the disappearance of two of the boys & of the similar incident some years before that cost his predecessor his job. This time, the boys are quickly found & brought back but the two boys, Piggy & Alec, who filed through the bars on their windows to escape in the earlier incident, were never heard of again. Mrs Bradley rents a house in the neighbourhood, hoping to convince the Warden that a holiday for some of the boys in her care would help in their rehabilitation, but he’s not enthusiastic about the idea.

Mrs Bradley’s grandson comes to stay & finds a diary written by Bella Foxley, a woman who was once housekeeper at the Institution but who, sensationally, was suspected of murdering her elderly aunt, acquitted of murdering her cousin &, a year later, committed suicide. After reading the diary, Mrs Bradley feels compelled to investigate. Bella was an unhappy woman. She hated her job & was only waiting for her aunt to die so she could inherit her money & leave work. When Aunt Flora seems to finally be on her death bed after a fall, Bella gives notice & goes to her bedside. Her cousin, Tom & his much younger wife, Muriel, are also there although they have no expectations from the will. Aunt Flora seems to be recovering until, according to Bella, she suddenly asks for some grated carrot. She chokes on the carrot & dies. Suspicion falls on Bella as there’s only her word that her aunt asked for the carrot, something she had never eaten before. However, there’s no real evidence & the doctor signs the death certificate, Bella inherits & Tom & Muriel go home.

Tom is a psychical researcher who rents haunted houses so that he can write up his experiences. He’s not well off so when Bella goes to stay with them, she offers to become a paying guest. She becomes quite involved in Tom’s work & there’s certainly plenty to work on in their latest home. The house has always had a reputation for being haunted by a headless horseman but when Tom & Muriel move in, suddenly footsteps are heard walking past doorways at night, bells ring for no reason, ghostly music is heard, writing appears on the walls & objects are thrown through the air. Muriel becomes so frightened by the phenomena that she & Bella move out & take a room at the local inn. Bella goes to the house one night to check on Tom after Muriel has become nervous & sees a shadowy figure behind him as he stands at the bedroom window. Next morning, he’s found on the ground beneath the window. Was he pushed or did he jump?

Tom survives this accident but is found dead in exactly the same position shortly afterwards. Bella is arrested & tried for his murder after Muriel claims that Bella had been blackmailed by Tom because he suspected that she had murdered Aunt Flora. Bella is acquitted of the murder, mainly because the jury believed her (although they didn’t like her) & were repelled by Muriel’s hatred & spite towards the prisoner. Bella moved to a small village & asked her sister, Tessa, to come & live with her. Inevitably, someone found out who she was & where she was living & the anonymous letters began to arrive. Bella was found drowned in the village pond & the verdict at the inquest was suicide.

However, the discovery of the diary throws doubt on all these facts. Is the diary genuine? Mrs Bradley discovers several discrepancies between the diary & the recollections of other witnesses. What happened to Piggy & Alec, the boys who disappeared from the Institution just before Bella resigned? Mrs Bradley is initially convinced that Bella murdered her aunt but is she right? This is a wonderful Golden Age mystery. The atmosphere of the haunted house with its mysterious poltergeist activities is truly spooky but that may be because it’s compared with Borley Rectory, a notorious case of poltergeist activity that led to Borley being known as the most haunted house in England. I’ve always been frightened by the idea of Borley after reading an account of the story in a Reader’s Digest book in my childhood. I think poltergeists throwing objects around & writing messages on the walls is more frightening to me than spectral nuns floating through convent ruins. Gladys Mitchell often used occult themes in her novels & she creates an atmosphere of dread & misery in this book.

None of the characters are wholly sympathetic. Mrs Bradley does quite a lot of cackling but I found her much more interesting & sympathetic character than I did in The Saltmarsh Murders, an earlier book in the series that I read last summer. I’ve decided that Mrs Bradley just does a lot of cackling & clutching at people with a yellow claw of a hand. I suppose it became as much a trademark as Poirot’s constant references to his little grey cells or Miss Silver’s knitting. We also meet Mrs Bradley’s son, Ferdinand & his family in theis book which humanises her quite a bit. Her relationship with her grandson, Derek, is lovely. When Last I Died was the perfect book to read on this cold, wet weekend – even though the haunted house meant that I couldn’t read it last thing at night!

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