Friday, January 9, 2015

FFB: Groaning Spinney - Gladys Mitchell

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 a long 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 inside you will discover that they are perfect replicas of the original first UK editions. And they are still a heck of a lot cheaper than shelling out over $200 for a crappy reading copy of a Michael Joseph edition. 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.

11 comments:

  1. I've read a couple of her books, though I can't even recall a title, but don't recall being thrilled, enthralled or even muttering "oh, boy!". So I think this one is a must miss, and then there is the dog death thing which for me is only okay if needful due to rabid dog or insane dog or the like. Other wise, can't the author come up with something better?

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    1. I think the reason you get grisly animal deaths in mystery novels is so the author can underscore the cruelty and ruthlessness of the villain. And in this case the villains are thoroughly despicable people.

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  2. Interesting review. I have only read one Gladys Mitchell, and I am not sure what to read next, as her work is so variable.

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  3. Hi John, another really interesting and entertaining review.
    I read a couple of Mitchell titles a few years ago and was left with largely the same impression as you. From what I remember of Merlin's Furlong it had a really erratic and eccentric plot that in some way reminded me of Carr the difference between the two for me is that whilst Carr manages to pull all of the strands together (usually in the most wonderful way) Mitchell,at least here, didn't. Very disappointing. However I thought The Rising of the Moon was excellent. Maybe as you say it is a case of choosing the right ones!

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  4. I haven't read nearly enough Mitchell -- I think I read one or two in my late teens or early twenties, and that's about it. Many thanks for reminding me about her. I really should give her another try although, judging by your fine review of this one, Groaning Spinney may not be the novel I'll choose!

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  5. Thanks for the fine review, John. I too find a detective's allusions tiresome so don't think I am too keen on this.

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  6. I've only seen the TV series, and though I enjoyed them I was never tempted to chase down the books,

    It's probably time to reconsider.

    Wayne.

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    1. Don't get me started on that TV series, Wayne. Awful! Most of the plots were completely rewritten and anyone who read the books was usually screaming at their TV in protest. I saw only THE RISING OF THE MOON (one of the best books) and hated what the TV show did to the book. Never bothered with any of the other episodes.

      Diana Rigg is a lovely woman and a fine actress I enjoy nearly everything she does. But shes so so wrong for Mrs. Bradley. They glammed her up and wrecked one of the most eccentric aspects that make Mrs. Bradley so unique and intriguing as a fictional detective. She's supposed to be as ugly as sin, a crone in fact, who wears ridiculously colored mismatched outfits. As I recall the only thing they retained were Mrs. Bradley's reptilian black eyes. Rigg wore colored contacts to achieve that effect. I think Miriam Margolyes would've been the best choice to play Beatrice Bradley. Much more suited in temperament and appearance and eccentricity, even if she's much too short.

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  7. Mitchell appears to be an acquired taste. Anyone who expects a straight forward mystery will almost certainly be disappointed. Sometimes she writes a parody and sometimes her work is surreal. She is very much an original which is great when it works but can be jarringly bad when it does not.
    Like yourself I purchased five ebooks recently when they were available for two dollars each but I'm going to spread them out as I find reading too much of any author in close succession leads to disappointment and too much awareness of techniques used to achieve their effects.
    But I generally enjoy a detective's allusions and quotations. Perhaps that's why I like Reggie Fortune so much.

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  8. I enjoyed the show but saw it well before I'd even heard of the books. Since then, not sure I've hit anything that I'd view as a classic. Usually each time I read one I'm put off for another year or so so it might be time to try another - I think I've got The Rising Of The Moon knocking around somewhere... Great review btw

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