As far as I can see, the only good reason for reading “The Longer Bodies”, other than forgivable ignorance of what you’re letting yourself in for, is the kind of curiosity that leads you to read “The Life & Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman”. Just as Tristam Shandy shows you what a novel looked like before people really figured out how to write one, “The Longer Bodies” shows you how early crime fiction flopped about like a recently landed fish on a dock before the modern genre emerged.
The first half of the book, a long, long, oh-God-am-I-not-yet-through-this, 150 pages or so is a complete mess: scrappy exposition, cardboard characterisation more suited to a farce, an investigative method that was explained at length and yet was both ineffective and implausible.
When Mrs Bradley finally flies in on her broomstick, the novel flares brightly for a while, like a cheap candle with a bad wick and then starts, all too slowly, to gutter and die. The denouement is protracted, clumsy, implausible and would, in any book less dull than this one, have been anticlimactic but here simply sustained a level of when-will-this-end tedium.
There were some stray shafts of sunlight in this cloudy waste of a day novel. Mrs Bradley weaponises eccentricity by bringing to bear high levels of insight with very low levels of empathy and absolutely no need or desire to be liked by anyone. The improbably named Great Aunt Puddequet turns tyranny into an amusement in the way only a very old person, who has been wicked by the standards of her day but now wishes she’d been a great deal more so, can. The “children” in their late teens and twenties are a curious mix privileged prig and abuse survivor.
The depictions of the German trainer and the Scottish cook are so patronising and xenophobic that they could be the stuff of a Brexit campaigners’ fantasy except for the hint of self-mockery.
This is a book that I endured rather than enjoyed. I assume that some of the sixty-six Mrs Bradley books must be worth a read. I went to this tribute site for guidance and was disappointed to see that “The Longer Bodies” is consistently listed in the top third. I think I’ll restrict myself to trying one of the top three before I decide that Gladys Mitchell just isn’t my thing