Here Comes a Chopper by Gladys Mitchell

published 1946

For last year’s online Bodies From the Library conference, I talked about Gladys Mitchell with Len Tyler, with some informal buy highly-valued assistance from the Greatest Living Expert on Gladys, Jason Half. (You can read about this year’s in person event here). I read a lot of her over that period, then had an understandable pause – but am now back reading her regularly. (You can find many, many previous posts on Gladys books on the blog)

The action of Here Comes a Chopper starts over the Easter Bank Holiday weekend, (and continues on for several clearly delineated months) so even though there is no religious content at all,* it seemed the right book to do now. There is only a superstition, about not having 13 people at a dinnertable (‘the first person to leave the table will die next’) – but that’s pretty modest by Gladys Mitchell standards – she likes folk customs, the more menacing the better, and happy to move on to sinister rituals; but not in this book.

*Apart from this: 'The company, not unnaturally, looked wooden and non-committal—the usual reaction on the part of English people to any reference to the Bible, their national book.' It was a mention of the story of Joseph - who, as it happens, came up also in Brat Farrar which I read again for the post on impersonation last week

Here Comes a Chopper opens with a thrown-together young couple, out hiking round the countryside, who stop at a posh house to ask for directions, and are unexpectedly pulled inside to join a dinnerparty, for a reason you can now guess. [For no good reason, the meal includes Xmas Pudding and Xmas crackers, never explained.] Afterwards the couple try to get home, and discuss everyone they’ve met, but there are too many of them to keep track of at this stage. It’s a leisurely opening even though quite a lot is happening.

Someone goes missing, and there are unrestrained searches round the countryside. Mitchell always has a real feel for the English landscape, very atmospheric and convincing and un-cosy, and it comes out well here.

A body is found, but is it the right one? Is the car burnt or wrecked? What exactly did the train driver see? Where is the head?

The book is a very good one, quite ridiculous, and all the usual downsides, but rattles along very nicely, and funny:

‘That's the point,’ said Lady Catherine, upon being appealed to on the question of whether Lingfield were married. ‘He was. Far too much married, poor man. Bigamy. Didn’t you hear? The scandal of two continents; three, if you count India as Asia.’


‘You’re wonderfully gifted!’ breathed Claudia [about Roger’s poems]

‘I say,’ said Roger, completely overcome by this tribute, although it was, in crystallized form, his own opinion of himself.


[His other young woman will say later ‘dispassionately’: ‘I didn’t, personally, think “Claudia” rhymed too well with “disorder”]

Roger is a teacher at a prep school and there is a wonderful day outing to London including the Tower of London and a river boat trip – it takes up a huge amount of space, and is mostly unnecessary, but I enjoyed it very much. (Mitchell’s interest in, and descriptions of, the Thames in fact made me think of Caroline Crampton – known mostly as the proprietor of the Golden Age crime podcast Shedunnit, but also the author of a wonderful book about the Thames, The Way to the Sea.)

There’s another sequence where (again unnecessarily) Roger has to chase after two of his pupils who have sneaked out to go to a local theatre. There is discussion of the Bournemouth Little Theatre Club – a 100-year old amateur theatre with a distinguished and fascinating past. I read about it in Mo Moulton’s 2019 ‘Mutual Admiration Society’, which tells the story of Dorothy L Sayers and her Oxford friends, several of whom – obviously including DLS - often pop up on the blog. The amdram company in the book is perhaps based on it.

Roger wants to burst in and carry off his young charges, but the stern usher will not let him. This scene appealed to me very much because I once went into the wrong cinema screen to hunt down some malefactors, then had to cross the corridor to Screen 2 – where my son, his friends, and apparently half his schoolmates (the other half had been in Screen 1) stared at me in amazement. Their key question was whether I had had to buy a ticket to do this. No I hadn’t – no usher can stop an energetic mother on the prowl at half-term. I was tougher than Roger….

The book is a rocking ride where we dip in and out of a weird series of events. Mitchell doesn’t bother writing her characters in or out of scenes. Maybe that bored her? It leaves all kinds if unaddressed problems – but if that’s going to bother you, then probably Gladys Mitchell isn’t the best choice of crime writer. For those willing to skate over some aspects, she’s marvellous.

Roger and Dorothy spend a lot of time hiking so at the top is a great picture from the Imperial War Museum of hikers in 1944.

Claudia is a noted violin player, with ‘surprisingly muscular arms’ – the picture is of a prodigy violinist called Thelma Given, and is from much earlier than the date of the book.

Archery features throughout the book: the photo is actually a Country club in North Carolina in 1939.


  1. That's Mitchell for you, Moira. You never know exactly what you're going to get, but it's often entertaining, even if it is a little ridiculous. I like her way of putting things together in a weird way that, well, actually works. I have to admit, I have to be in the mood to appreciate one of her stories, but when I am, they can be hugely entertaining.

    1. That's a very good description Margot - when you are in the mood, she is just the thing! I don't want to read all her books one after another, but when the moment comes I am glad to find her on my Kindle. It is good news that so many of them are available now.

  2. A wonderful and tantalizing review, Moira! Chopper is a book that I definitely must read again; I think I've read it twice, the last time likely 15+ years ago. And that title you offer me is very generous, but with his detailed commentary as he rereads the GM canon and his equally enthusiastic championing of the author, I think NICK FULLER is well in contention for Greatest Living Expert! :)

    1. Thanks for the kind words Jason, and very happy to give credit to another Gladys expert!
      Will be interested to hear how you find it if you read it again.

  3. Like Margot, I have to be in the right mood for Gladys and I find a little goes a long way - but this is definitely one that I will try. It sounds great. Loved your account of storming the cinema ... WHAT were they watching?

    1. The film was relatively harmless - that wasn't the issue. My son AJ (maybe 14?) had gone off to meet friends to go to the cinema, half-term afternoon, and just before the film was due to start, his friend called me and said AJ hadn't turned up. We all tried to call him - no answer. I said to friend 'give him 5 mins, and then you have to call me up EITHER WAY, whether he has turned up or not. You or he MUST CALL ME BACK.' And of course no-one called me, and all their phones were off. And I was 95% convinced that he had just been late, they were now in the cinema with phones off, and all was well. But 95% isn't quite good enough, and I wasn't totally convinced that friends wouldn't have just gone ahead into the cinema if he wasn't with them (I don't think girls would, if I had to stereotype, they would get the point that someone was missing). So eventually I decided I couldn't relax and enjoy the happy afternoon I had been looking forward to, I had to go to the cinema and check up on them. So I went off, and peered into Screen 1, saw the backs of 3 likely heads, stomped up to them and said 'WHAT did I tell you - oh, sorry, not you' and had to turn round and head across to Screen 2. Where of course the three of them were happily settled in with popcorn and were faintly horrified to have me looming up at them and being very very shouty indeed. And, as I say, the cinema (both screens) was full of their schoolmates, all staring at me. So I told them off for not phoning me, said a vague 'sorry to disturb' to the rest of the cinema, and went off home.

      And as I say, apparently this wasn't as mortifying for the boys as it should have been, because the schoolmates were all over-impressed by my tiger-mother qualities...

      I'd like to think they would never do that again, should the circumstances arise!

  4. Wonderful. thanks for this information. Not read it since I was a teenager.

    1. Thanks! It would be interesting to compare reactions from a teenager to an adult, you should read it again.

  5. Early in the book Mitchell writes of "small hawthorn bushes (sinister to eyes which had read George Allingham's poem)".
    Has anyone come across the poem, or even heard of George Allingham - or is Mitchell showing her usual accuracy and referring to William Allingham?

    1. Oh that's hilarious! I just did some pootling around myself, and I am sure you are right: it's a mistake, and yes, not that surprising from her. Do you think she means the fairies poem? My mother is 95 and could still recite the whole poem for you, 'Up the Airy Mountains and down the rushy glen...' I did find out that William Allingham was lot more successful and productive than I had realized. Really only known for that one poem now?

    2. Better known for his diaries now, I think.
      "Up the Airy Mountains" is what I was thinking of:
      By the craggy hillside,
      Through the mosses bare,
      They have planted thorn trees
      For pleasure, here and there.
      Is any man so daring
      As dig them up in spite,
      He shall find their sharpest thorns
      In his bed at night.

      Had you stopped listening before your mother reached that verse?

      [deleted and replaced because I'd c&p'd an inaccurate version of the poem]

      Also "There was the sound of hoofs again, and this time the boy they had previously seen went by like a Cyclops, his horse, on a loose rein, thundering."
      What was she thinking of there?
      And a police sergeant named Ambrose Bierce.

    3. After about the second line I should think.
      But then 'thorn trees' wouldn't actually make me think of hawthorn (I know, the clue is in the name).

      No idea about Cyclops, but now I thought about Ambrose Bierce, that it was a mock title, as it might be the inspector might have said to his inferior 'Now look here Sherlock Holmes...' - though it's not really clear why the sergeant would be Bierce, although Bierce did not like poets.

      I think neither Sergeant or Inspector has a name anywhere else in the book.... ?

      (All these comments could only be written about a Gladys Mitchell book, and would make no sense in any other context)

    4. The boy re-appears on horseback towards the end of the book and is compared - more sensibly - to a centaur.
      The sergeant is revealed to write poetry in his official notebook. I wondered about the Bierce reference myself, but was Bierce well enough known in the UK in 1946 for many people to get it?
      As you say, typically Mitchellian. There's a coherent explanation for how the murders were done, but why they were done and why they were done the way they were is completely disregarded. Mitchell's characters pay no attention to logic or reason.

    5. Yes of course, centaur makes more sense. Just careless I guess.
      And I have long given up trying to make sense of motives, and sometimes methods, and likelihood in Mitchell books, while still enjoying them very much.


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