Friday, January 27, 2017

FFB: The Greenstone Griffins - Gladys Mitchell

THE STORY: A pair of antique candle holders in the form of griffins become an obsession for Jessica Denefield, a young teacher living in rural Longwater Sedge. The Greenstone Griffins (1983), as they are known, carry with them an apparent curse; for anyone who owns them violence and destruction follow. The griffins have purportedly been responsible for an accidental fire in a summerhouse, a shooting death, and arson at an antique shop. In the final damning bit of proof that the objects are cursed one of the griffins is used as a blunt instrument in the murder of a mysterious fortune teller named Madame Setier. Jessica is compelled to discover the secret of the griffins and why so much violence is attached to their ownership. She literally stumbles upon the battered body of Madame Setier and becomes the prime suspect in her murder. When Mrs. Bradley happens to visit the town and meets Jessica in order to gain permission in interviewing the schoolchildren for her research into nomadic travelers she learns of the griffins, their sinister history, and the murder. A pattern of violence begins to emerge all of it tied to a crime in the past. Mrs. Bradley's determination to clear Jessica's name leads to the uncovering of family secrets, blackmail and murderous revenge.

THE CHARACTERS: I have a suspicion that this book was written earlier in Mitchell's career and was set aside. The atmosphere of the book is far removed from a modern 1983 and feels much more like the late 1950s. Jessica Denefield loses her teaching job merely because she stumbles upon a murder is the only witness and is subsequently paid close attention to by police. She eventually becomes the prime suspect because Jessica also made the foolish decision to walk into the house as the door was unlocked. To me this is just trespassing, but the police call it breaking and entering. In any case, the way she is treated by the school administration seems absurdly old-fashioned for the 1980s. However, it is set in rural England so it's very possible that this is a reflection of a countrified worldview where people in authority maintain deeply conservative opinions and shudder at any thought of the most minor scandal.

And yet... After Mrs. Bradley criticizes the Education Officer for the way he has treated Jessica he says "Ah, you are a feminist!" intending it as an insult. Never letting the meekest slight affect her the elderly psychiatrist snaps back: "If most of life's ironies and jests were directed against men, I would be on their side, but we must not waste your time and mine on fruitless discussion of Nature's ruthless disregard of the importance of the balance of powers between the sexes--at least as human beings are concerned. I believe the female spider is more fortunate." Later on she attacks a woman for holding antiquated ideas and rebukes her by stating her heartfelt opinion that men and woman have always been equal, that the inequality was an invention of men in power. Granted both Mitchell and her detective character have always been vocal about equality for men and women, but those few instances are the only time I felt like the book rang true for its publication date.

In other ways the book is a real throwback to Mitchell's mysteries of the early 1930s and 1940s.  All of the regulars appear in this book including her loyal servants Celestine, Henri and George her indefatigable chauffeur. George plays a prominent role in this book and even goes undercover to help Dame Beatrice get some inside dope from a scalawag who frequents the "Cow and Lasher," a local pub. There is a new secretary who is a replacement for Laura Menzies who left Mrs. Bradley, got married, and had several children sometime in the 1950s or 1960s. This new secretary I liked a lot. Her name is Miss Cummings and I've never encountered her in the Gladys Mitchell books prior to reading The Greenstone Griffins. She may be in other books, but since I've primarily read Mitchell's early to mid career books rather than her books published between 1970 and 1983 I can't tell you when Miss Cummings first pops up as one of the many employees at Stone House. She's full of wise words, has a passion for dropping literary allusions into everyday conversation, and is deeply concerned for Mrs. Bradley's safety. She thinks her boss takes too many risks for an elderly woman which delights and amuses ol' Mrs. Croc to no end.

QUOTES:  Education Officer: "Don't hit a man when he's down!"
Mrs. B: "I should not stoop to such a proceeding. When a Man is down, that is the time to kick his head in, don't you think? --and that action does not involve any stooping at all, as your committee appears to have realised in the case of Jessica Denefield."

"There are such things as wheels within wheels, Detective Superintendent,"
"You speak in riddles, ma'am."
"Maybe it is the fault of my profession. The Delphic Oracle, if you remember, suffered the same disability."

THINGS I LEARNED: Mitchell is a master at replicating the country dialects of her native land. This book comes alive with all sorts of rural slang amid the dialect heavy dialogue. Mumping is slang for begging. Apparently, it is also in use among police and the working class to mean selling used goods in lieu of begging. Bumby hole is one of the many alternative terms for an outhouse or a public toilet. I never heard that one! Not even in the thousands of British movies I've seen over the years.

EASY TO FIND? All of Gladys Mitchells books are available in digital versions from that giant e-tailer who created the Kindle. Knock yourselves out 21st century book fans! Those of use who like to turn real paper pages with our fingers rather than swiping a screen are less lucky. I found only five copies of The Greenstone Griffins for sale and all of them are priced ridiculously high and will probably stay on their shelves until each seller goes out of business. The book was never reprinted in paperback and exists only in the UK hardcover edition making it all the more scarce. If you happen to have a spare two grand in pocket change you can treat yourself to something unique in book collecting. Mitchell wrote all of her manuscripts out in longhand and sent them out to professional typists before submitting them to her publisher. There is a bookseller who managed to snag the original holograph of The Greenstone Griffins and wants nearly $2600 for it. Do you hear strains of "The Impossible Dream" playing in the background?

11 comments:

  1. A lovely review, John. Very glad that you enjoyed Gladys Mitchell's final book published in her lifetime (with three posthumous publications). You make an excellent case for dating this to an earlier writing period -- I'm intrigued and should return to it for closer examination.

    I don't remember Miss Cummings appearing anywhere else, although there is a (pre-Laura) secretary in the short story "The Case of the 100 Cats" -- don't have it available as I write this, so I can't check on that factotum's name. I will add that in the last decade of her output, nearly all the protagonists from her stories are some variety of writer or teacher. I remember reading them and always being a bit jealous how these characters manage to have the leisure to discover bodies and watch Dame Beatrice investigate the case between bouts of work.

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    1. Thanks for the lowdown on Miss Cummings, Jason. I'll keep an eye out for her if I read any more of the late 70s Mitchell books or the other three that followed this one.

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  2. I've read mostly early and mid-period Mitchell, but, from what I understood, she rebounded late in her career and attempted to return to her 1930s work. Late, Late in the Evening (a splendid nostalgia act) from 1976 is a good example of this.

    So I do not think this one had been gathering dust in a drawer for decades, but was the work of a woman in her eighties drawing on her own past. After all, Mitchell was a teacher in early part of the previous century.

    Anyway, thanks for the review, John. It reminded me The Devil at Saxon Wall is still languishing on the big pile.

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    1. This one is very enjoyable, TomCat. Unencumbered by Mitchell's early eccentric prose style but still showing her wit and skill in creating believable and fascinating country folk. I especially liked the book's structure divided into two parts. Jessica's story is told in part one. In the penultimate chapter of part one Mrs. Bradley enters the picture. There follows one more chapter and then part two focusses on Mrs. Bradley's (and George's!) investigation of the many crimes -- both present and long past. I'd rate this one an 8 out of 10 only because the ending is a little anticlimactic while all that proceeds it is very well done.

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  3. Thanks for this fine review, John. I'm intrigued there is no paperback edition of "The Greenstone Griffins," especially since Gladys Mitchell was a contemporary 20th century author and very prolific too. What about her other books?

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    1. The only paperback editions of her books are from Penguin between the late 1940s and 1961; two titles from Dell in the US in 1980 and 1981; and five titles reprinted by Paperjacks, a Canadian paperback publisher, all dated 1986. The most recent paperbacks were reprinted by Vintage/Random House, all released over the past five years. You can only buy new copies of the Vintage paperbacks from a UK website due to copyright law. Sadly, The Greenstone Griffins has never been reprinted in paperback or hardcover. It's only available for Kindle from you-know-who.

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    2. Thanks for that, John. I'll see if I can find the Penguin and Dell and the other editions at the popular secondhand book exhibition I frequent. I have been surprised before.

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  4. I've only read a few Mitchell books and though I enjoyed them, I wouldn't go out of my way to read any more unless they fell into my lap. I mean, they were fine, but not not staggeringly fine. Ha! Oh okay, if I were stumbling along and saw a three dollar kindle deal...

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  5. I've only read a a few of hers - one I liked quite a bit (popular GAD favourite, DEATH AT THE OPERA) but the few others were just too "eccentric" for me - I rather liked the Diana Rigg TV show that did, however, bend the books completely out of shape - but then, considering how nuts some of the books are, this doesn't have to be a criticism! Or is that a heretical notion? Anyway, sorry to hear this is so hard to find, just as well she wrote so damn many of them!

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  6. This is one of her books that ISN'T available on Kindle in the UK, and the only paper copies are wildly expensive. I wish they would bring them all out. I like the sound of this one, but no hope of reading it at the moment.

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    1. I guess I'll never fully understand how eBook sales work. I wonder why all the controls in place for digital books. Copyright law, maybe? I didn't realize it was only US Kindle owners who could get this. I never have a problem buying print books available only for sale on UK sites then having them shipped to me. So there's one of the few advantages of being a quasi Luddite like myself. :^D

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