Gladys Mitchell spent most of her working life as a teacher & this experience is reflected in the settings of many of her detective novels. Death at the Opera is about an ill-fated production of The Mikado at Hillmaston School. Inofffensive, mousy spinster schoolteacher Calma Ferris is found dead, drowned in a washbasin. The verdict of the inquest is suicide but the headmaster, Mr Cliffordson, isn’t satisfied & calls in Mrs Beatrice Lestrange Bradley to investigate further.
The circumstances of the death are odd, and, to be honest, I didn’t see why the police & coroner thought suicide was a likely option. Miss Ferris had gone to wash a cut on her cheek after she collided with the art teacher, Mr Smith, in the corridor before the performance of the opera. When Miss Ferris is found dead after the performance, the sink had been stopped up with clay & the lights had been tampered with so the room was in darkness. It seems an odd way to commit suicide but why would anyone want to kill Miss Ferris?
Although she was a quiet woman, Miss Ferris knew about a lot of other people’s secrets. She knew about the affair between two senior staff members, a widow & a man married to a mentally ill woman whom he would never divorce. She knew that one of the sixth form boys fancied himself in love with a young teacher who happened to be the headmaster’s niece. Miss Ferris had walked in on the pair locked in a passionate embrace. Miss Ferris had accidentally knocked over a clay model by the art master & ruined it. The model was a commission that the teacher was relying on to get him out of a financial mess. Unfortunately he had been working on it in school time & had asked one of the female students to pose nude for him. Miss Ferris had antagonised the sports mistress by refusing to allow the school’s best netball player to skip a detention on the day of a big game.
Miss Ferris had financed the production of The Mikado & had been offered an important part, Katisha. Unfortunately she wasn’t a very good singer or actress & the sports mistress, Miss Camden, who had expected to play the part, had been overlooked. When Miss Ferris can’t be found before her first entrance at the end of Act 1, Miss Camden refuses to step into the breach & Mrs Boyle, a former actress & the director of the production, steps in. Then, there was Miss Ferris’s personal life. Miss Ferris had spent her holidays in Bognor at her aunt’s boarding house. While there, she had become acquainted with a man who had been acquitted of the murder of his wife & was now living under a new identity.
Mrs Bradley has a wonderful time interrogating the staff & students at the school, Miss Ferris’s aunt & her companion & especially the unconvicted wife-murderer who, like Joseph Smith, is suspected of having murdered his wife in her bath for the insurance money. Death at the Opera is a classic Golden Age murder mystery & I had no idea who was responsible until the very end.