The formidable Dame Beatrice Bradley, world-famous criminologist and psychoanalyst, is taking a rest cure on the aptly named South American island of Hombres Muertos. High in a mountain cave, guarded by bandits and popular with tourists, are the mummified remains of twenty-three dead kings sat round a stone table. When a twenty-fourth body appears in their midst, Dame Beatrice is intrigued. As she delves into the mystery, it becomes clear to her that everyone in Hombres Muertos had a motive for the murder, and dark secrets they would rather stayed hidden. But which one of them is the killer?
Given that Gladys Mitchell is frequently named as one of the queens of crime fiction’s golden age, expectations were high- maybe too high. Initially the book’s Withnail & I-esque ‘something to offend everybody’ tone provides a certain catty amusement as Mitchell takes on trendy parenting, Brits abroad, package holidays and enforced fun. Sadly, though, there’s no counterbalance, no view that we can side with, no figure to whom we’re drawn- even the lead- and the archness starts to drag over 230-odd pages.
To be fair, The Twenty-Third Man is a fairly late entry in the canon, published in 1957, so it may be that the earlier books are what helped garner Gladys Mitchell such praise. The plotting is neat, with the investigation taking in Hombres Muertos, London and a small island near the resort without it feeling forced but the waspish, misanthropic tone and lack of interesting characters make it difficult to care- any of them could have been murdered and it wouldn’t have made a difference.
The supporting cast is a cavalcade of miscreants for whom Mitchell, Mrs Bradley and ultimately we, develop little regard. There’s Caroline Lockerby, a highly-strung widow travelling with her brother, Telham, who comes to the island to get over the killing of her husband. There’s also Clun, recently out of prison after doing time for manslaughter, Mrs. Angel, an expat who may or may not be involved in slavery, Peterhouse, a crazed botanist who grows poisonous plants, and Karl Emden, the resident ladies’ man whose indiscretions see him wind up as the twenty-fourth corpse. The ‘comic relief’ comes from the precocious Clement, the indulged stepchild of progressive guardians, and the bandits, who are cliché foreigners straight out of a Vince Powell sitcom.
The end result is, to quote a review I once read of the crime drama Big Breadwinner Hog, a lot of unsympathetic people doing unpleasant things to one another. Even Mrs Bradley herself is played up as such a grotesque (Mitchell draws comparisons between her and some of the island’s lizards) that it’s hard to side with her. As a result, this led to a certain amount of skim reading to get the book over and done with, which is a shame.