Brazen Tongue by Gladys Mitchell

Brazen TongueThe village of Willington is preparing for war. In the first months of the Second World War, windows are being blacked out, the Report Centre monitors the local area for enemy action and water cisterns are being built in case of fire. The last one fascinates two local boys but when one of them goes for a swim in it, he discovers – guess what? – a dead body.

In fact, in a very short period of time, three bodies are found in Willington. Apart from the unknown woman in the cistern, a Town Council member is found in a doorway, poisoned by arsenic, and a red-headed worker at the Report Centre is bashed over the head with a rock. With no obvious links between the deaths apart from the timing, the police are at a loss. Luckily the niece of Mrs Bradley happens to be working in the Report Centre…

Brazen Tongue is the eleventh Mrs Bradley mystery, long unavailable and extremely rare, and is on record as being “a horrible book”. That might be an unfair thing to say, but it was from no less an authority than Gladys Mitchell herself, so I think we might have to listen to her. Having said that, it’s not a horrible book – Hangman’s Curfew, that’s a horrible book – but not this one. It should be noted that while not being horrible, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s great.

This is another book in my “Do Mention The War” series, books written and set during the Second World War, notably when the outcome was uncertain. Published in 1940 and set in 1939, it depicts village life as initial preparations are being made – at one point Mrs Bradley is knitting a balaclava – and the water cistern plays an important role in the opening section.

After that, however, the wartime setting seemed to fade into the background with Mitchell preferring instead to tell her whodunit tale, but they are still there – blackout checks, for example. And there is a rather unpleasant caricature of an immigrant Jewish woman – what the hell is that accent supposed to be? To an extent as well, it’s worth mentioning that the war plays a little into the motive – I think.

When I say “I think”, it illustrates the primary problem I had with this one, namely the ending. It mostly consists of Mrs Bradley and the local police discussing their theories, all of which are partly true. But it goes all over the place and I needed to make notes to keep track of what happened. Basically, it goes

  • Here is my long theory
  •  No, you’re wrong
  • Here is my new theory
  • That’s wrong, here’s what happened
  • So I was mostly right?
  • Yes, I was just being bloody-minded when I said you were wrong. Hey readers, try and work out exactly which bits are right.

There is a nice idea buried in the plot, although it all seems a pretty extreme method to solve a problem, but at the end of the day, it’s all a bit garbled. It holds the attention longer than some of Mitchell’s output – and I will add a caveat here that I read a chunk of it on an airplane while trying to combat jetlag – but it’s a bit too flawed for me. Fans of Gladys should like it though – there’s a much more positive review here.

13 comments

  1. Think I’ll pass on this one. I find Mitchell invariably starts off well with an unusual premise, but that it never then lives up to expectations. An ending such as you describe would probably annoy me quite a bit. Good dust jacket though!

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      • And sitting on my bookshelf. (Along with the first edition of the ultra-rare Hangman’s Curfew, and signed copies of Come Away, Death and Here Comes a Chopper.)

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      • I’m sort of jealous… but I know you’re a bigger Mitchell fan than I. I thought this was better than some – out of curiosity, what’s your opinion of Hangman’s Curfew? – but still falls short. I think I’ll take a break from Gladys for a while. Was thinking about looking at Sunset Over Soho as part of my war series, but it sounds like that is something distinctly out of my comfort zone.

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      • Hangman’s Curfew is one of Mitchell’s most complicated, impenetrable books. It’s never boring (the unforgivable sin), there’s plenty of action and adventure, but I’m damned if I can follow the plot. The TLS called it an exhilarating hoax.

        If you’re after a puzzle, Sunset over Soho is really outside your comfort zone! I hated it the first time I read it, but have come to – not love it, let’s say admire it, or find it intriguing. It’s a mixture of high seas adventure, war novel, and erotic dream, told by an unreliable narrator, then narrated by Mrs Bradley.

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  2. One of my favourite Mitchells, by the way! A dozen years since I read it, but I remember really enjoying the Home Front look at WWII in its early days; the misdirection and juggling of red herrings; and the richness of incident and character. And Mrs Bradley is in great form.

    I don’t think the Jewish characters are meant to be caricatures; the Councillor and his wife are intelligent, respected members of the community. (Isn’t one of the victims anti-Semitic?)

    Mitchell, though, does like accents and dialogue; Dead Men’s Morris, for instance, has pages of broadly rendered Oxfordshire dialect. The TLS reviewing My Father Sleeps (1944), one of the Scottish novels, wrote:

    “Yet another kind of murder mystery has been invented. In My Father Sleeps questions concerning who, how and why barely arise. Mrs. Bradley is now in the Highlands, and the plot is lost in a Scottish mist until she has travelled over or through everything from bealach and blair, tullach and uam to find it. The reader, never sufficiently in her confidence to be able to hazard even as much as a wild guess, should be content to admire the scenery and learn some Gaelic. What is most pleasing about the author’s admirable style is the dialogue. She ought to write a book on local peculiarities of speech in the British Isles.”

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    • I don’t think Mrs Zachariah is treated in an overt anti-Semitic way, but the way her accent seems to be played for comedy doesn’t make her treatment particularly sensitive. And after having her little speech, she does basically vanish from the plot, which is probably a good thing to be fair.

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  3. Your “Do Mention the War” project is fantastic and hopefully is proving literarily lucrative for you. I had read your post announcing the project, then got busy with work and haven’t had a chance to check in until now. Brazen Tongue is a spirited favorite for me among the Mrs. Bradley series — thanks for providing a link to the review on my GM site — but the ending solution scene is undeniably tortuous. I’ve always contended that Mitchell used the Golden Age puzzle format to explore mood, character and setting, and had far less interest in the challenge-to-the-reader solution, which sometimes just feels like a requirement to be gotten through. Glad you tried the Tongue, and at least it’s not Hangman’s Curfew. Best wishes as you soldier on with your wartime reading!

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    • Many thanks. I thought it was important to link to a review by a Mitchell fan as I know this one is well-regarded. As for the project, it’s still ongoing with Bush and Rhode titles in particular to come – it might be a bit on and off as I’ve other promised reviews to post as well, but it’ll carry on for a bit. Might be interesting to take a close look at the books written in the same period that ignored it as well… let’s see.

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      • Reading war-era books that ignored the world events: that’s almost like proving a negative. You could look at theme and whether optimism/pessimism or foreign influences appear within the story’s world, but the task might be daunting (although hopefully entertaining).

        I remember enjoying Rhode’s 1942 The Fourth Bomb years and years ago, and I have a copy of the Burton title Death Visits Downspring (Up the Garden Path -1941) but I haven’t read it. Coincidentally, at this moment I’m halfway through the 1937 Burton Death at the Club, thanks to a particularly well-stocked interlibrary loan system that links state school repositories.

        Best wishes, and I will be happy to see what you discover going forward —

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      • A wiser head than I might see things in, say, Evil Under the Sun that reflects the ongoing conflict, but I can’t recall any and can’t be bothered to reread it. The Fourth Bomb will be coming soon – glad it sounds promising

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