[A judgmental old lady is trying to make her relations into top athletes. One of the nephews is reviewing the situation]
‘Don’t forget that she’s now seen:
1. Malpas muff the high jump at five feet eleven;
2. Frank make his record long jump of nineteen feet seven inches, a distance which a schoolboy champion can equal;
3. Cowes put the shot once on his own toe, twice behind him instead of in front, once into the bathchair— luckily when she’d just got out of it to hobble over to Kost and curse him for letting us get slack— and once a distance of nearly fifteen feet, after which he retired to bed for two days, suffering from strained eyebrow or something;
4. Brown-Jenkins persistently refuse to make any attempt at mastering the pole-vault action ever since Kost handed him backchat on the subject nearly three weeks ago;
5. Me make my record throw with the discus of fifty-eight feet nine inches—’
‘That sounds good to me,’ said Priscilla meekly.
‘Well,’ returned Hilary, ‘I know that the world’s record figures for the event are one hundred and fifty-eight feet, one and three-quarter inches, that’s all.’
‘Yes, but that wasn’t an Englishman,’ retorted Priscilla.
‘U.S.A.,’ said Hilary patiently. ‘And M.C. Nokes’s English native record is one hundred and twenty-six feet one inch,’ he added, ‘so poor H. is a bit of an also-ran, isn’t he?’
comments: It’s all somehow very unlikely. YES, yes, Gladys Mitchell plots always are, you’d think it was hardly worth mentioning. But this one is positively surreal. An old woman wants to improve England’s chances of winning international athletics events, and also wants to decide who to leave her money to. So – obviously – she organizes training sessions at her country house, and all the putative heirs have to compete. The first one to make the England team gets the dosh. Mayhem and murder are the result, amongst a wide range of characters.
It is moderately entertaining to read the facts as they looked in 1930:
No, it’s the field events that do it— and they always will do it until something pretty drastic is done about training boys early enough for them. As long as men with a 21-foot long jump or a 6-foot high jump or a 40-foot shot, and chaps doing 11foot-6 over the pole vault, are in the championship class in England, our case is hopeless.For interest, the current UK long jump record is almost 28 ft. The pole vault record is just over 19 feet. High jump: 7.7 feet. Shot put: 70+ feet. Discus (see excerpt) is now something over 223 feet. (All records are of course in metres now. Never say I don’t do research and work for these blogposts.)
This book must have been very disconcerting to readers in 1930. The same year Agatha Christie was producing Murder at the Vicarage: superficially similar but actually on a different planet. And from my extensive reading of crime books of the era, Christie is a lot more typical than Mitchell.
In fact it’s more like Evelyn Waugh’s writings of the time – it reminded me of Sports Day at Llanabba school in Decline and Fall, published 1928. But then it was all very confusing: Who are all these people? What is going on? I like reading her books on Kindle now where possible, so you can check back to see if she has indeed just mentioned a completely new character without introducing him, and called him, mysteriously, the Scrounger throughout. Her style is unique, and very complex.
In this one, the set of young people should be interesting (obviously all the young men – women can’t be athletes or initially heirs – have brought their sisters along). But in the end they had little character…
One of the rural policemen was having no truck with the ideas of the other:
‘Oh, I don’t know, Mr Bloxham,’ objected the sergeant. ‘Them sort of large, blowsy females are seldom strong in the brain-line, sir. Sort of passionate and excitable underneath an otherwise placid exterior, if you get me, inspector, but real bright, no.’
Though to be fair, you can imagine series sleuth Mrs Bradley making the same observation to great applause all round.
‘Boy,’ said the inspector, eyeing his henchman and supporter with grave concern, ‘those talkies are doing you no good. Take my tip, and spend your evenings at home. Help the missus wind the wool. It’ll do your nerves good.’
She makes quite a late appearance in this book – she is so much Mitchell’s trump card that it’s always a shame when that happens: she cheers things up just by her presence.
‘I have heard of your work,’ [Great-Aunt Puddequet] said. ‘More: I have read your books. Utter rubbish. How do you do?’
As always, the details of life are interesting: There is no electricity upstairs in the house, yet people are using a cine camera to record the athletes. There is the usual snobbish claptrap about the good families in the area. There is a completely incomprehensible sub-thread about rabbits.
Mrs Bradley acknowledged this informal comment on her work with an appreciative leer which gave her never extraordinarily attractive countenance the expression of a satyr. ‘I hesitate to commit myself to sentimentality,’ she observed, in her rich, deep, beautiful voice, ‘but my heart goes out to you, Mrs Puddequet. How you must have enjoyed the murders!’
But the details of the murder plot are beyond description and so completely impossible as to be dismissed from your head the moment the book is over (how exactly did the criminals get the shot into the concrete ball? And why?). The point isn’t really in the search for a murderer. I’m not really sure what the point is, and I fully sympathize with those who say she is not worth the effort of trying to follow the plots. But I do always come down on the side of her being worth reading…
Putting the shot in 1935, from the State Library of New South Wales. High jump, same source. Both by the blog favourite Sam Hood, whose photos of daily life in Australia in the first half of the 20th century are lovely, and invaluable in my researches. (The winning shot at the event was 45 feet, perhaps proving mad old Great Aunt Puddequet’s point.)
There is mention of one young lady in an evening frock, no description: the only other clothes mentioned are the hideous outfits worn by Mrs Bradley and various people doing muddy jobs outdoors. But I had to use one beautiful evening dress from 1930, so I found this one from Kristine’s photostream.