DEATH AT THE OPERA (1934) by Gladys Mitchell


Gladys Mitchell is one of the true eccentrics of the Golden Age mystery, an author that easily divides fans of the genre, especially for her highly idiosyncratic plots and her decidedly ‘colourful’ detective, Mrs Bradley. After a couple of failed attempts to get in sync with her style in my youth, I decided to try again with Death at the Opera, reputed to be among her best. It was also adapted for the short-lived Mrs Bradley Investigates TV series, which I rather liked. The setting is a progressive school where, on the night of a staff and student performance of The Mikado, one of the cast apparently commits suicide. Only nobody there believes she would do that. And soon two further drownings follow …

I submit this review for Tuesday’s Overlooked Film / TV meme hosted by Todd Mason at his Sweet Freedom blog and Bev’s 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge.

“But – you don’t mean – not the Mrs Bradley, Headmaster?”

I can’t now remember which were the Mitchell titles that I didn’t much like way back when, though I suspect one must have been The Twenty-Third Man as I still have a copy in my loft. Why didn’t I get on with her books? I suspect that it may have been my reaction to some unlikely plotting and Mrs Bradley herself, as she can be hard to warm to. Like Albert Campion, she was not apparently conceived as a series character at all and was thus depicted in rather extreme terms, an OTT eccentric who sits outside of the action for the most part, flies in and then flies out, a notable supporting character existing really just to add colour. However, Mitchell grew to love her and ended up writing 67 novels about the character, a rich, much-married, self-assertive psychiatrist who is also described as having an unpleasant, reptilian countenance to match her outrageous fashion sense. She also has a very personal approach to justice which, like Philo Vance before her and Poirot afterwards, didn’t stop from taking matters into her own hands – and then there is the whole matter of her being a possible descendant of witches …

“Please, Mrs Bradley, was Miss Ferris really murdered?”
Mrs Bradley smiled in the manner of a well-disposed cobra and kindly boa constrictor …

However, even though Mrs Bradley may be so extreme a character as to be more than a little on the edge of caricature, let me say right away that I really enjoyed this book. It’s funny and clever and outrageous (the surprise villain and their motive is really something …) with some deftly drawn characterisations too (Mitchell often used school settings, drawing on her own background as a school mistress, her chosen profession for forty years, making the sheer size of her literary output even more impressive). Known in the US (where little of her work was ever published) as Death in the Wet, it focuses on the drowning of Calma Ferris, a meek maths teacher at a co-ed school who wouldn’t say boo to a goose but who ends up putting herself in the way or various colleagues. She irritates the highly charged, highly ambitious games mistress, Miss Camden, by getting a role in the production of The Mikado that she would have been very good in (probably because she was financing the school show) – and by keeping her star netball player in for detention, possibly leading to the loss of a championship. Then there are the pair of teachers who have been having a very discreet affair for 11 years, which Calma in fact knew about; then there is the headmaster’s niece, who was discovered by the teacher kissing a love-sick pupil; and then there is the art master whose statue of ‘Psyche’ she accidentally knocks over, infuriating him. And what about Helm, the man she met while on holiday at her aunt’s boarding house, foiling an attempted burglary in the process?

The TV version is really quite radically different from the book. Some of the changes are inevitable, like the compression of the original novel’s timeline, which is spread out over nine months but is now condensed to as many days. Also one of the series characters – light-fingered chauffeur and confidante George (a pre-Midsommer Neil Dudgeon), a less prominent Mitchell creation – has been added for consistency (while Inspector Christmas – a post-Campion Peter Davison – was created for the TV series). Other changes reflect the overall conception of the show. Mrs Bradley is much less extreme, though she is definitely domineering and naughty (is she having an affair with her driver? Probably not, but …) and sports some extraordinary fashion accessories and breaks the fourth wall by speaking directly to camera. I actually rather like this latter aspect of the show, matching the strangeness of the character in terms of TV norms rather than physical eccentricity that might have made it very hard to sell as an ongoing series (as it was, it never got past a feature-length pilot and a brief single series of 4 hour-long episodes).

Dr Simms: “I hope you like Gilbert and Sullivan?”
Mrs Bradley: “Frankly doctor, I wish they’d never met”


On the other hand, the plot and characters have been comprehensively overhauled. Miss Ferris is now a tougher, somewhat misanthropic person, much more senior in the school (and teaches Art not Maths), which is now an ultra traditional finishing school for girls where everybody boards. The progressive headmaster is now an old fuddy-duddy with a passion for mechanical gadgets under the thumb of his wife, with whom he runs the school, which is now Mrs Bradley’s alma mater (she hated it). Yes, Miss Ferris dies during a production of The Mikado and Mrs Bradley solves the murder but to be honest this is about as near as the plot gets to the book. The murder methods are completely different (there are no drownings) and most of the original characters no longer appear at all, while the motive (which is utterly absurd, but Mitchell knows it is) and identity of the murderer have also been completely changed (and a huge subplot set in Bognor Regis has also been filleted out completely). So, as an adaptation it really isn’t much good, but on its own terms it is actually very entertaining as a breezy period mystery with its tongue in its cheek and some nice period tunes on the soundtrack.

Ela reviewed the book, touching also on the TV version, over at her blog, Ela’s Book Blog, which for a while has not been as active as it once was.

If you want to know more about the author and a detailed analysis of her prolific output, you can do no better than visit:

Mrs Bradley Investigates / Death at the Opera (BBC One, 16 January 2000)
Screenplay: Simon Booker
Producer: Deborah Jones
Director: James Hawes
Music: Matthew Scott (after Gershwin, Fats Waller et al)
Cinematography: John McGlashan
Production Design: Anthony Ainsworth
Cast: Diana Rigg (Mrs Bradley), Neil Dudgeon (George), Peter Davison, Annabelle Apsion, Roy Barraclough (Dr Simms / Mr Cliffordson in the book), Elaine Claxton (Miss Ferris), David Tennant

I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘medical’ category as Mrs Bradley is a psychiatrist:


***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge, England, Gladys Mitchell, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to DEATH AT THE OPERA (1934) by Gladys Mitchell

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    It’s funny, Sergio; I find Mrs. Bradley fascinating precisely because she’s out of the ordinary. And yes, she definitely gives eccentricity a new meaning, so it’s not hard to see why she’s a bit divisive. But the stories can be quite good, and I’m glad you enjoyed this one.

  2. realthog says:

    Glad you enjoyed this. I too tried but didn’t get on with Mitchell in my yoof, and have been meaning to give her another go. You’ve encouraged me in that aim.

    • Thanks John. This one I definitely recommend – much livelier than Dame Ngaio (though there are a few longuers in the middle that reminded me of her a bit – a lot of suspect interviewing …)

  3. I need to read more Mitchell as well – despite giving up three times on Come Away Death for being deeply boring. Glad I’m not the only one to enjoy the show for what it was though – yes, it’s a terrible adaptation but a decent show in its own right.

    • Thanks chum – when it comes to Marsh and Mitchell I suspect we are fairly similarly placed but this one is really entertaining. The motive does utterly and completely beggar belief, but it is hard not to be charmed as Mitchell knows this full well.

  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    I found the book quite good and enjoyed reading it. It has a surprise ending with an incredible motive.
    I, however, didn’t particularly like the TV version. It is so different from the book that it can’t be called an adaptation. The US title can’t be applied to the TV version !
    Incidentally, two of the actors Peter Davison (Inspector Henry Christmas) and David Tennant (Max Valentine) have played the Doctor in Doctor Who series.

    • Thanks Sabtosh. The Doctor Who connection in the adaptation is a surprise … especially as Tenant is now married to Georgia Moffett, who is Peter Davison’s daughter!

  5. Colin says:

    Never tried the writer myself, partly because of the reputation for oddness and also because I tend to avoid school based stories – as a teacher, I’ve spent more than enough of my life there already! I may give her books a go some time, but I’m not in a rush right now.

    • Which I totally get Colin. Mitchell is genuinely a bit bonkers, which can be quite liberating if you are in the right mood, as I clearly was with this one 🙂 Amazing just how much they bent it out of shape on TV!

      • Colin says:

        Certainly seems like you had a good time with this one, and the loose TV adaptation. I’ll add it to the, let’s say, “to be considered” list at least.

        • Plenty of great stuff to get through before this series chum, particularly given the genuine reneaissance in obscure GAD titles there has been in the last year in the UK – amazing really.

          • Colin says:

            Well, true. it’s not like there’s any shortage of material these days.

          • Absolutely astonishing amount of stuff there – and yet, as is probably a bit clear from some of my recent comments, this is not the draw for me it once was … If this had happened 20 years I would have been on cloud nine. Now, well I’m pleased, but a lot of the time I’m reading different sort of stuff.

          • Colin says:

            Right now I’m desperately trying to work my way through the ridiculous amounts of stuff on my own shelves! Also, I’ve found I’ve forgotten the plots of many books I read maybe 10 years ago, or even less in some cases. And I mean totally forgotten – I may never need to buy another book again at this rate.

          • Yeah, me too – and what I realise is that I remember the non crime fiction books a lot better, which probably says a lot about my level of engagement and less abotu the books themselves. But then, if you read for relaxation, that tends to be of the moment. I have books by Franzen and Rushdie on the shelf (post Birthday) which I know I will be enjoying in a very different way that say the next Ed McBain (much as I look forward to that too)

  6. Great review and it’s nice to see someone else finds something to like in Gladys Mitchell’s novels. Death at the Opera is probably one of her stronger novels and I enjoyed reading it a few years ago. Think my favourite though has probably been Mitchell’s first Mrs Bradley novel, Speedy Death, which has an intriguing puzzle and dramatic ending, which thankfully is not too loopy. The character of Mrs Bradley has never put me off Gladys Mitchell novels, it’s invariably been the slightly more extravagant plots which don’t always add up.

  7. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Some of the Bradley books are really out there, and I did find them hard to take when I first read them. Having said that, I think I appreciate them more nowadays… I don’t know that they could ever be transferred to TV successfully, but I did like Diana Rigg’s attempt at the character and like you enjoyed the breaking of the fourth wall!

  8. Jeff Flugel says:

    The idiosyncracy you mention is one of the reasons I really enjoy Mitchell’s Mrs. Bradley books. I personally think Dame Beatrice makes for a very memorable master sleuth, though she IS very unorthodox (her taking no action against the killer in this particular novel is outrageous, really). I’ve read about a dozen of her books over the past 3-4 years and enjoyed most of them very much, though far and away my favorite is the first one I ever read, LAURELS ARE POISON, which uses the sort of school setting you refer to exceedingly well.

    As much of an admirer as I am of Diana Rigg, I just couldn’t get on with the MRS. BRADLEY MYSTERIES TV series, I’m afraid (though the pilot move, SPEEDY DEATH, was OK). They make a proper hash out of DEATH AT THE OPERA in that series.

    Great post, Sergio!

  9. Bev Hankins says:

    I like Mitchell in small doses. I don’t think I’d care to read too many Mrs. Bradley stories in a row, though. I’ve not read this one–although I have viewed the adaptation (and the rest of the short-lived run). Good to know that it differs in a great many ways from the book. I love Diana Rigg and enjoyed the series for itself–but I have to admit that I don’t particularly think she’s suited to the Mrs. Bradley character.

    • THnaks Bev – they definitely streamlined the more outre elements so that it would fit more in the Poirot / Marple / Campion peiod mystery feel. Truth it, it might work better set in the present day …

  10. Noah Stewart says:

    I’m also one of the folks who never warmed up to the Mitchell titles I’ve read and can take them or leave them. I find I’m never really clear about whether it’s comedy or tragedy, and even sometimes just what the heck is going on. My mental picture of Mrs. Bradley was formed by looking at a picture of Diana Vreeland, who shared that magnificent ugliness, so I was surprised to see Diana Rigg in the role, but … once you accept they have little to do with the books, the TV episodes are fun and beautiful to look at.

  11. JJ says:

    Sounds like a classic setup, and if by anyone other than MItchell I’d give it a go, but alas I’ve been burned too many times already. I have vague recollections of the TV series being on but, not being ware of Mitchell at the time, it didn’t really permeate and I’m not sure I ever watched it. Certainly Rigg is an odd choice for Mrs Bradely, but then Rowan Atkinson is an odd choice for Maigret and many would argue Cumberbatch an odd choice for Holmes…sometimes the odd choices pay off!

    • All true JJ – I enjoyed this one quite a bit but will wait a while before trying another. The series is less odd and less distinctive, but a bit of a laugh all the same. Easy to see why it didn’t last though …

  12. I dabbled in Mitchell when I was younger, and didn’t like them, found them too disconcerting. But I have been reading my way through them recently (there’s a handful on my blog, including this one, though a very short entry – I have become much more verbose over time!) and like them much more. I think I disliked their weirdness then, but enjoy it now. And there’s plenty of them – she’ll keep me going for years.

    • Thanks Moira. Their weirdness doesn;t bother me at all but I remember getting annoyed about the approach to plotting in a couple and that was what put me off. But this was very enjoyably daffy!

  13. tracybham says:

    I have only read one of the Mrs. Bradley mysteries and it was very bizarre. I will try more of them, just to see if I can warm up to the series. The TV series sounds fun even if not much like the books.

  14. TomCat says:

    Gladys Mitchell is, what they call, an acquired taste, but she’s well worth getting accustomed to, which is saying something coming from a plot-oriented reader like myself. That’s not to say Mitchell couldn’t plot… but her mind was usually occupied with other things that fair-play clues.

    I tried this series years ago and liked the first episode, which was somewhat faithful to the original book, but quickly gave up after the abysmal adaptation of The Rising of the Moon. I found an old , from 2010 (!), where I ranted about this series (with a cameo by Patrick).

  15. Yvette says:

    I’ve never never read any, Sergio, but thanks to you, I’m going to try this one. I like strange and eccentric. Ha. I did see a couple of the episodes but wasn’t completely won over though I love Diana Rigg and the way she talked to the camera and I liked her with the chauffeur and I did wonder whether or not…

  16. Yvette says:

    I did, Sergio. Not DEATH AT THE OPERA which is too expensive for my sensitive budget, but I did find two other Gladys Mitchell books: WHEN LAST I DIED (which I read and enjoyed) and THE RISING OF THE MOON (which I haven’t read yet). I’ll be looking for more of her books for sure. And I’ll be writing about one or two of these soon.

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