“No maiden be safe, except under lock and key, at the Mayering of Seven Wells.”
That extremely odd, and rather ominous, warning is given to a young woman named Fenella Lestrange. Her car having broken down in the tiny English village of Seven Wells on the afternoon before May Day - the festival the locals call "Mayering" - she has no choice but to spend the night at the local pub. But the locals warn her to stay locked in her room, for her own safety.
Fenella, not being one to pay attention to efforts to restrict her freedom, rather naturally refuses to stay locked up. That, in turn, leads to a number of very bizarre adventures which, eventually, will involve Fenella's great-aunt, Dame Beatrice Bradley, in an investigation of a local murder. And that's really just the beginning of "A Hearse on May-Day," by Gladys Mitchell, featuring one of England's more eccentric detective characters, Mrs. Bradley, a woman of amazingly keen intellect, reptilian appearance and a truly appalling sense of fashion. "A Hearse on May-Day" is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
Fenella is a strong-willed young woman, and she is determined to find out what is going on in Seven Wells. What she discovers, among other things, is some distinctly odd fertility rites, an odd gathering of people wearing face masks and costumes based on the signs of the zodiac, and a number of local residents who are muttering ominously about a decided shortage of skeletons. She also hears about the murder of the local squire, who is to be buried on May Day. When Fenella leaves the village the next morning, she travels to nearby relatives and gets a visit from her great-aunt, Mrs. Bradley, who has been asked to investigate that murder. Among the many questions to be answered: Why would anyone kill the popular squire? Who are the people hiding behind those Zodiac masks? Why did the original hosts and servants at the pub in Seven Wells disappear suddenly, to be replaced by an entirely new staff? What is the real story behind some newly-uncovered skeletons? And are the very odd activities observed by Fenella on Mayering Eve connected in some way with the murder?
Gladys Mitchell is not as well known in the US as the other "crime queens" of the English "Golden Age," but her mysteries can be thoroughly enjoyable, filled as they are with eccentric (and occasionally downright insane) characters, odd situations, a great deal of very dry and, sometimes, very dark humor and the wonderful personality of Mrs. Bradley. "A Hearse on May-Day" is one of Mitchell's later books, first published in 1972; this edition, from the invaluable Rue Morgue Press, is the book's first American publication. I think it's one of the most accessible (to an American audience) of Mrs. Bradley's appearances. By all means, give it a try.
My thanks again to Sally Powers, of the "I Love a Mystery" newsletter, for letting me use portions of the review which I originally wrote for that publication and for providing me with a copy of the book for review.