Author: Gladys Mitchell
Publication year: 1934
It was the realisation on the importance of reading golden age crime fiction which led me to various renowned authors such as Daphne Maurier, Dorothy L Sayers, G K Chesterton, Gladys Mitchell etc. And it was 'Death at the Opera' by Mitchell, I chose to read first.
Since I was accustomed to the writings of certain authors whom I read incessantly, I always found it a bit difficult to adjust to the style of new authors at least for a couple of pages. To my surprise, Mitchell's writing did not pose any such hurdles before me. I was totally engrossed in the book right from the first page.
Miss Calma Ferris was dead. She chose to commit suicide on the night of opera in the Hillmaston school where she taught. She was found sitting in a chair with her head drowned in a wash basin full of water. Miss Ferris was supposed to play the potent role of ' Katisha' in the opera called ' The Mikado'. Since she was found missing on that night, her part was enacted by another staff, Mrs Boyle.
The coroner's verdict said it's suicide. But Mr Cliffordson, Headmaster of the school had his doubts as he found the pipe of wash basin was tampered with. It was blocked with clay.
Without wasting much time he sought the help of an elderly and sly psychoanalyst Mrs Bradley to investigate the case. The first few chapters were devoted to showing the kind of person Miss Ferris was. She had none except an aunt who was running a lodge. Though kind on her face, the aunt never had a sincere liking for Ferris.
Her life was colourless and moral values very high. But she was a sort of person who could be happy with all the goodness happening to others. Her life was sans expectations with little time for rantings and ravings.
It's rather surprising to know that an inoffensive woman like Ferris could get murdered.
Through her analysis, Mrs Bradley came across people who had the opportunity and motives to kill Calma Ferris. But she was caught on the horns of a dilemma for the people who had the motives to kill never had the opportunity and those with opportunity did not have the motives.
Even the motives did not seem like substantial ones that could make a person take somebody else's life. For instance,
1) Ferris had destroyed a clay statuette, Mr Smith, the art teacher was making, not deliberate of course. He was given compensation by Mrs Boyle, later.
2) She had witnessed Miss Cliffordson, another staff and Hurstwood, a student kissing. When the student was head over heels in love with Miss Cliffordson, she never forbade him from seeking any intimacy with her. She never loved him, though.
3) She had discovered the clandestine relationship between two senior staff Mr Hampstead and Mrs Boyle. The former's wife was an alcoholic and was admitted to an asylum and the latter was a widow. They were in a relationship for the past 11 years.
Just a few days before the opera, Ferris' aunt had sent a telegram warning him of a person called Helm whom she had met while staying in the lodge run by her aunt. That was the only clue which could make the reader think there was more to the plot. This took Bradley to Bognor and there comes the twist in the tale - Two more murders by drowning. ' An epidemic of drowning' as she would like to call them.
I cannot talk about my dislikes for the book I am reading her for the first time. Mrs Bradley is new to me and I am sure I will get to know the kind of person she is through her other stories. I like the method Mrs Bradley employs to deduce who's the culprit. It's helpful for a reader who wants to be a writer.
Even though Mrs Bradley was noting down the causes that could make someone a potential murderer, which also gave the reader a feeling that she/he was moving along with her in finding out the culprit, I failed to pinpoint the real murderer.
I was clueless who the murderer was until the end. But what I could not come to terms with was the motive that made the culprit commit the murder. It sounded flimsy. But I would like to think that a human being cannot be expected to behave in a certain way. Sometimes feelings and emotions can be betraying.
by Shalet Jimmy