St Peter’s Finger by Gladys Mitchell

 St Peter’s Finger by Gladys Mitchell

published 1938


It was the time of the afternoon break. Mrs. Bradley stood in the school grounds and watched the girls come out. With them came two nuns to supervise the recreation period. The girls came out with decorous quietness, but soon conversation became animated, groups formed, the see-saw and the netball posts were requisitioned, and girls linked arms to walk about.


Series sleuth Mrs Bradley has come to a convent/school/orphanage to look  into the death of one of the pupils – thought to have committed suicide. One of the teachers is unsurprised, in a mind-boggling para you cannot imagine in any modern book:

‘[The dead girl was] no good at games or swimming. Timid as a rabbit. Just the type for suicide, of course. These quiet, mousy kids are always the ones. You never know what they’re thinking, then off they go and do it, and most people feel surprised. Not me, though. I’ve seen so much of it. Germany, now. Kids commit suicide there if they can’t get through their exams.’

In general suicide is taken very casually indeed, with just a reference to those weird old Catholics not thinking it a good idea.

Gladys Mitchell is ruthless with children (in other of her books too), and even in a crime story the reader balks a little at the coldness with which their deaths are described. All Mitchell’s educational establishments sound weird in the extreme, and you would remove your offspring from them very quickly indeed, but this one is particularly miserable and has a very creepy atmosphere.

St Peter’s Finger is a light in a tower which is explained early on:

High in the church tower burned a steady light. Saint Peter’s Finger they called it in the village. It was the warning to ships which the convent still made it a duty to show every night, although a new lighthouse, half a mile farther along the coast, had released it, in effect, from its ancient obligation to mariners.

- though not much is made it after this, which seems a waste.

There is a farrago of plot and motive linked to a rich American patriarch with three relations at the school.

I love books set in convents and in schools, but this was not the unalloyed joy I would hope for. This convent incorporates an orphanage, with orphans working in the school eg cleaning the bathroom where a pupil died. The pupils do metalwork, slightly surprisingly, as well as embroidered bookbindings and other artistic endeavours. Hilariously, during the course of the book Mrs Bradley learns the school timetable off by heart so will say

“Which day was this?”

“It would have been last Thursday morning, madam.”

“But the fourth form don’t have history on a Thursday.”

And there’s a LOT about different towels which might or might not have been in the bathroom.

I liked the description of different kinds of Irish, whom you could tell from their names:

"Do you know any Catholic kids? Always pick ’em out in any school. This one was Irish, though. The what-is-it kind of Irish, too. Not the devil type, but the——”

“The Celtic twilight type perhaps?”

“That’s it! Deirdre! Pale and interesting. You know. Keen on poetry and afraid of a hard ball, rotten little ass.”

That (and the suicide comments earlier) was the games mistress speaking

‘a stocky young woman of medium height dressed in a tweed three-piece suit and a little suede hat’

There is some discussion of her wearing trousers or shorts while organizing the sports. Shorts are a step too far for the nuns at the convent, and she is asked to cover up as soon as she comes indoors. And there was an intriguing description of her watch, which ‘was barred all across its face to preserve the glass when she was playing games’ – I tried to find a picture but could not.

Mrs Bradley does a fair bit of knitting, but is very bad at it and at one point does ‘some rapid decreasing which she felt she would regret later on’ – unimaginable from fellow-knitters Miss Marple and Miss Silver.

There is a weird description of a nun on a ladder, doing grafting on some fruit trees, which seems to have no relevance to plot but is curiously memorable.

“Mother Patrick. Doesn’t she look lovely on a ladder?”

With her usual busybodying, Mrs B considers people’s futures – “I don’t somehow think she will make a very good nun. She’d make a fine missionary, though. She’s quite unscrupulous” – and fixes up a nice job for one of the orphans.

The plot ends with a very dramatic fire in which Mrs B and lot of the other characters, various nuns, staff and girls, are preparing to die, although the happy reader doesn’t believe that for a moment. Even so, it makes for melodramatic reading as they sit watching the smoke and flames and contemplating their certain fate – though I very much liked this:

“I think,” said Mother Ambrose, “that we should all pray.”

“Pray, nothing!” said Miss Bonnet [the games mistress again], from the window. “They want us to climb on the roof! I’ll go up first, if you like, and help haul the kids.”

There is a marvellous book on insanity in Golden Age fiction – this is my blogpost on it – Guilty but Insane by Samantha Walton ( - and there is a detailed and fascinating analysis of St Peter’s Finger in it.

Schoolgirls from flickr, the Library of New South Wales.

Three nuns in a row from the National Library of Ireland.

The picture of the tweedy games mistress is from the Helen Richey archive at the San Diego Air and Space Museum. 

Woman in fur coat and hat is my idea of Mrs Bradley -  it's Florence Julia Bach, an American painter and sculptor, and comes from the Smithsonian.


  1. This sounds rather creepy!

  2. I thought I had read this one but then a peruse of the old bookshelves showed that I hadn't. Mitchell is an author I wish I liked more than I do - her work that is. Innes is another. For me both are good at coming up with unusual and quirky crime setups but I then find their development of these ideas disappointing. I have Guilty but Insane in my TBR pile, so it is interesting to see that it is a book you have reviewed already.

    1. I know exactly what you mean Kate - for a long time I felt the same way about Mitchell, then later in life came around to her! Innes I still haven't come back to, though I read a lot of him - including his non-crime books - back in the day.

      I think you will really enjoy Guilty but Insane - I got it out to check the references to this book, and ended up re-reading a lot of it. It is the ideal book for true GA fans - I think her publishers missed a trick not niche-selling it to us!

  3. Hmm.....normally I like Mrs. Bradley as a character, Moira. And I do like a school setting. I'm not sure about the casual attitude towards suicide, though. I think that's rather harsh. But the descriptions sound interesting, at any rate.

    1. I always think we share that liking for a school setting! and this was enjoyable in many ways, but for me did not make it to the highest levels. I doubt I would read it again, for example.

  4. I think the lady in the fur coat is too nice-looking to be Mrs Bradley. She just isn't reptilian enough!

    1. ... and her hat isn't in bad enough taste. I wonder if Mrs B's headwear inspired the Golux's "indescribable hat" in The 13 Clocks (now there's a challenge for clothes in books).
      Mitchell herself was a games teacher, so I wonder how accurate her depictions of teachers are.

    2. I could have sworn that was Virginia Woolf...

    3. I love this conversation!

      It is clear that my imagination isn't wild enough when it comes to Mrs Bradley! I am glad to be held to a higher standard by others...
      It's a long time since I read the 13 clocks . Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall has a 'startling' but otherwise undescribed hat for the Spanish Ambassador - you can see my version in this post
      which I was pleased with.

      Yes, Susan, I can see the Virginia Woolf resemblance...

  5. Gladys Mitchell had a sister who became a nun. I suspect that was why her nun characters like real people rather than set character pieces. The gym teacher is is not a person to be admired.

    1. So she really knew nuns and educational establishments...
      The gym teacher is not admirable, but she is a memorable and well-rounded character, I enjoyed her appearances.

  6. The first wrist watches were ‘trench watches’ for WWI officers. These often came with a ‘shrapnel guard’, a metal grille to protect the glass. The games teacher’s watch sounds like one of those.

    1. Thanks - I wasn't aware of that style, and certainly seems to explain the reference.

    2. There were wrist-watches before WWI, but they weren't common. A story by Arthur Conan Doyle from the 1890s mentions one of the characters wearing a wrist-watch.

    3. I associate the coming of wristwatches with the trenches of WW1, but I suppose it is unsurprising that they did exist before then...

  7. I had been meaning to comment on this post, if only to say that I wish I could read more of Gladys Mitchell's books. I just can't keep with all the books and authors I want to read. I have paper copies of some and some ebook editions and I have now added this one to my Kindle. So, someday.

    1. I hope you enjoy it! Gladys Mitchell wrote so much, which is good because there is always another one to read 😉, but I do find it hard to keep track! I thought I would at least be familiar with the names of all her books, but that is far from the case, there is always a surprise.


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