Beatrice Lestrange Bradley is at her most frustratingly oracular and infuriatingly intuitive mode in Groaning Spinney (1950). I hesitate to call this a detective novel because frankly it isn’t though there is the barest trace of Mrs. Bradley’s keen detective skills put to use. This is a crime novel with an obvious set of criminals; there are no real surprises in the denouement for those who crave that in their mystery fiction. Still there are an intriguing enough set of circumstances surrounding a couple of puzzling crimes that kept me reading.
I haven’t read any of Mitchell’s books in anything resembling chronological order. I tend to pick them based on the plot summaries and whether or not a handful of Mitchell experts consider the book one of her best. I guess if I had stuck to a rigid order reading process I might have noticed the subtle change from her parody of the detective novel format (while still remaining somewhat true to the fair play doctrine) to this current style of crime novel where the puzzles really don’t matter to her, but the characters and situations do. For obvious reasons I have avoided most of the duds ever since I inadvertently read about three of them back to back and was turned off of Gladys Mitchell for a long time. Mitchell can be, at least to me, incredibly dull and “unreadable” sometimes — a word Mitchell herself has blithely leveled at John Dickson Carr. Sacrilege! With all my reading history in mind you may understand why Groaning Spinney just passes muster for me, but only for a variety of set pieces and the revelation of one of the cruelest and most sadistic crimes Mitchell ever invented.
Basically, the story is a borderline impossible crime story that incorporates the legend of ghost that haunts the forest of the title. When a dead man is found in the very same position that the ghost likes to adopt (hanging over a stone fence face first) there is superstitious talk of a ghostly murderer wreaking revenge. Then a woman goes missing and the village begins to be plagued with an explosion of nasty and insinuating poison pen letters. Did someone strike back at the anonymous letter writer when the toxic words struck too close to home? Mrs. Bradley, her nephew Jonathan Lestrange, and his wife Deborah all join forces with a curious and baffled police constabulary as well as the rigidly rational Chief Constable to get to the bottom of the villainy. There is confusion about whether or not anyone has been murdered and if so what method was employed which makes this a quasi-impossible crime. There is also the oddity of the positioning of the body and how it got here in the first place that adds to the mystery. But the novel is focused mostly on character and a brilliantly realized country setting.
The ghost element is weakly handled, not really as creepy as in other better Mrs. Bradley books that deal with possibly supernatural events surrounding a murder. But a completely different type of near supernatural aspect was utterly fascinating. This is in the character of Ed Brown, who reminded me of how Dickon from The Secret Garden might have turned out in his adulthood. Ed has an uncanny ability to befriend wild animals, especially birds. There is not a single scene where he appears in the book where some creature doesn’t walk up to him fearlessly or a robin flies down from a tree to perch on his shoulder. His animal magic comes in handy in the final uncovering of the convoluted murder plot involving insurance fraud and impersonation. Ed Brown was the most original and my favorite character in the book. His presence alone was worth the price of admission.
|Young Gladys as she is depicted on
vintage Penguin editions of her books
That is not to say that Aunt Adela (why does she waver between wanting to be called Beatrice and Adela? Yet to figure that out.) is not in fine form here. We get to see her being a crackshot with a pistol yet again and in the climactic fox hunt we see she is quite the badass equestrian putting to shame men half her age with her athletic skill on horseback. Her detecting talents here are mostly confined to the usual oracular and enigmatic statements about knowing who the culprit is early on but not telling anyone her thoughts. “To the devil with your metaphors and quotations,!” the exasperated Chief Constable shoots back at Mrs. Bradley in one of Mitchell’s wittier moments. Later in this sequence Mrs. Bradley says, “You have no fear, and I will have no scruples,” much like a cloaked and bedrugged Sibyl. Yet amid all the banter and allusion dropping the reader can’t help become frustrated with the author for not letting him in on her lead character’s thoughts. Mrs. Bradley intuits too much, guesses a lot, and — of course — everything she has mentioned or alluded to is proven correct in the end. But we’d never know if she was telling the truth or not, would we? I really find this kind of detective novel tactic tiresome and sometimes infuriating.
This is a rather unusual Mitchell novel in that I kept finding analogies to other books I’ve read in the past. Most of her story telling is unique and all her own, but this time Gladys seemed to be borrowing a lot although I will admit it’s just all coincidence. I couldn’t help but feel as if I was reading a Patricia Wentworth novel. Mrs. Bradley was acting exactly like Maud Silver without the supercilious coughing and clacking of knitting needles. Most eyebrow raising to me were the echoes of the savagery on display in that horror-cum-detective novel The Grindle Nightmare in both the method and teamwork of the culprits involved in Groaning Spinney. Fans of noir and gruesomely dispatched murders might like this book but it’s along haul to get to the violent and truly horrific pay-off.
Leading me to a warning: there are animal deaths in this book. They all occur offstage and therefore the reader is spared the gory possibilities, but the discovery of some dead dogs will not endear Mitchell to any lovers of man’s best friend. I’ve read several books in the past with torture and slaughter of household pets and mentioned it almost off-handedly in my reviews only to learn many readers of this blog avoid any book with animal deaths. So I thought I’d throw this out as a cautionary label.
Groaning Spinney has been out of print for ages but thanks to amazon.com’s Thomas & Mercer line and the UK branch of Random House’s Vintage Crime imprint this scarce title is available again both as a physical book and an electronic one. In the US you can get only a digital version, but in the UK you have your choice of either. Granted the Vintage Crime Classics are not at all attractive books with their unimaginative typographic covers on a scarlet background and they are manufactured print on demand, but there are perfect replicas of the original first UK editions inside. And they are still a heck of a lot cheaper than shelling out over $200 for a crappy reading copy. In a fit of book buying mania I bought about five Mitchell books I’ve been wanting to read for over ten years now but have never been able to find in the used book market. You can be sure that I’ll be reporting on those, both good and bad, when I’m done with them.