Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Frosty Wind Made Moan: Groaning Spinney (1950), by Gladys Mitchell

"What do you think of it?" asked Jonathan....
"Desolate, enchanted, apt, and supernormal," replied his relative, gazing raptly at the charged and lowering sky.
"Apt for what?"
"For treason, magic, stratagems, and snow....

"Parson talk about the brotherhood of man, but nature know better, I reckon."

However happy the Christmas, there is usually a deep-seated human instinct which feels tremendous relief when it is over.

                                                                                                            --Groaning Spinney

haunted wood
By 1950, when Gladys Mitchell published Groaning Spinney, her 23rd Mrs. Bradley mystery in 21 years, the crime writer was toning down some of the oddities and outrageousness that had characterized many of earlier novels (often dubbed eccentric by admirers and detractors alike) from the prior two decades.

Where some of her mystery narratives in the 1940s had become opaque and confusing for readers, Groaning Spinney--like Tom Brown's Body (one of Mitchell's more popular Mrs. Bradley novels) from the previous year--is relatively linear and straightforward.  It's a fine "winter's tale."

The leisurely and charming tale opens with Mrs. Bradley deciding to spend Christmas in the Cotswolds with relatives and ends with a fox hunt and the natural landscape on the verge of issuing forth all of its finery.  In the intervening period, the keen-minded psychiatrist and amateur sleuth manages to solve a couple of cold-blooded Cotswolds Christmas murders.

A reader of Mitchell will know, as the author drolly puts it at the beginning of Groaning Spinney, that "Mrs. Bradley's three marriages had provided her with a vast and varied tribe of spirited and gifted in-laws, some of whom she liked."  I can never completely follow Mrs. Bradley's complicated kin (and sometimes seemingly random) network, despite being something of a family genealogist myself, but in this one the relatives with whom she spends Christmas are Jonathan Bradley and his new wife, Deborah Cloud. Her niece Sally LeStrange, who plays a major role in the excellent Brazen Tongue, also appears, though rather superfluously.

Jonathan and Deborah, a most amiable couple, have bought a Cotwolds manor house and one-third of the accompanying estate (the other two-thirds and the "huge modern house" having gone to the Ministry of Education for one of those women's colleges that so often crop up in Mitchell's books--here, an Emergency Training College).

Jonathan and Deborah have maids and a cook, gardeners and an estate agent, so in a way this feels like a pre-war novel, despite the fact that the estate has been broken up, India has been lost for good and all, people carry identity cards and ration books, and Scotch is passing hard to find.

Besides the manor house and the wintry Christmas season, there is in the novel a quaint village, some broad rural dialect (not too much), lots of friendly animals and even a local ghost, the spirit of a nineteenth-century parson named Horatius Pile that is said to haunt a local wood called "Groaning Spinney." Those readers desirous of cozy milieus in classic mysteries will find lots to like here.

the new e-edition
Indeed, the village postmistress and her son are such traditionalists that they insist on referring to Jonathan and Deborah as "My Lord" and "My Lady."  The original owner of the estate having been a peer of the realm, "it had proved impossible to persuade [them] to address Jonathan and Deborah by any other titles than the ones now loyally bestowed":

"But out letters and parcels come addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Bradley," Deborah had observed.  The postmistress had agreed.

"But," said she, "the old house always had a lord and a lady in it, and I've always voted Conservative and always shall." [The Tories would take power again the next year--TPT]

However, the relatively placid life of the village is disrupted when dead bodies are uncovered in the heavy snow. There's also the matter of poison-pen letters which appear in people's mail. Eventually the tenacious Mrs. Bradley foils a crafty and cruel murder design.

I enjoyed Groaning Spinney and would recommend it particularly to Mitchell neophytes, who may have been put off trying the author by hearing how "weird" her books are.  This is one of her most straightforward and "classic" detective novels, adorned with lots of attractive bits characteristic of the author, and Mrs. Bradley is in fine form.

Mrs. Bradley's assistant Laura barely appears in the novel and her chauffeur George makes only sporadic appearances.  But even if you miss those two supporting characters (personally for me a little Laura goes a loooong way), there is much to like.  I note, for one modest example, this short exchange between Deborah and Jonathan:

"I'm going to smoke a pipe and read the new Nicholas Blake."
"You can't.  I've got it."
"Then," said Jonathan, "you can jolly well hand it over."

the "new" Nicholas Blake in 1950: Head of a Traveller (1949)

I wonder whether Mitchell's Detection Club colleague Nicholas Blake ever returned the favor in one of his detective novels?

I also loved this passage:

Tearjerker: Hesba Stretton (1832-1911)
could make grown men cry
"I knew a sailor once who used to take Little Meg's Children to sea with him every voyage, and read it at least twice before  he came home again.  He said it used to make him cry just as well as if he had gone to the pictures."

"It's frightfully odd, that, about the pictures," said Jonathan.  "Lots of fellows have confessed to me that they cry at them.  I suppose there's a psychological explanation.  Most of the chaps are quite tough, in the normal way, too."

"It's the darkness, and the feeling that you can release emotion without anybody knowing," said Deborah. "Most people say they feel all better for a good cry.  Personally, if I
do cry at pictures, I come out feeling completely chewed up and with a frantic headache."

Mrs. Bradley, who had not cried since she was four, but who believed that crying at pictures was a morbid symptom and reflected deep-seated neurosis built on self-pity, made no contribution to the discussion.

Ah, dear, unsentimental Mrs. Bradley!  She's like a cup of rather bracing Christmas cheer.


  1. I've not read this one yet, but will keep the book in mind for next year's Christmas reading. It's always a special treat when Mitchell wrote a lucid, straightforward mystery novel (e.g. St. Peter's Finger).

    1. Yes, St. Peter's Finger is one of my favorites by her.

    2. Incidentally, there's some similarity to Finger in that culpritude becomes narrowed earlier, but I think it still holds interest.

  2. This is an OK one, but I don't think it's a detective novel at all. Too much talking out the solution, a plethora of enigmatic remarks, not much actual sifting through evidence. The culprits are fairly obvious and only the motivation is a bit of a surprise. My favorite character is the guy who has the ability to communicate with animals.

    I bought this along with THE ECHOING STRANGERS and read them back to back last year. I thought ECHOING STRANGERS much better than GROANING SPINNEY; I think the former is probably one of her best overall.

    1. I'll quote Mitchell expert Nick Fuller:

      "While some find Mrs. Bradley to be rather cosy in this one, I found her to be at the top of her class here. Although she is more human and less reptilian and malignant than in other books, she cackles away like a hen-house with the fox on the prowl, is witty throughout (‘You talk in riddles.’ ‘So does the Sphinx, yet it preserves its reputation for wisdom.’), is both active and cerebral....

      In short, this is first-class Mitchell, well-written, humorous, lively, and with a particularly finely honed plot."

      He gives it four out of five stars, though he gives Strangers five! I do think Spinney makes a good starter Mitchell, though it is leisurely.

  3. I read this one not that long ago, and did enjoy the first half very much, but thought it trailed off in the 2nd half. You do make me want to read more Mitchell - so perhaps I should go for the Echoing Strangers.

    1. It's not a compact timeline, certainly, but I think Mitchell wanted to end the novel heralding Spring.

  4. Thank you so much for this wonderful overview and review! It's been far too long since I have read Groaning Spinney, but back in my GM heyday (around 2000 to 2005) I believe I read it three times. It's one of my favorites because of the mood; I remember it being familiar and cosy, in the most positive sense.

    And I'm also a fan of The Echoing Strangers, so the early 1950s was generally a good little era for this author. All best, and happy winter to you -- JH

  5. I note, for one modest example, this short exchange between Deborah and Jonathan:

    "I'm going to smoke a pipe and read the new Nicholas Blake."
    "You can't. I've got it."
    "Then," said Jonathan, "you can jolly well hand it over."

    I wonder whether Mitchell's Detection Club colleague Nicholas Blake ever returned the favor in one of his detective novels?

    Well, there's this:

    I commend this scene to my colleagues in the thriller racket; it would work up very nicely into the opening chapter of a Dickson Carr; Gladys Mitchell would deal with it pleasantly, to, or Anthony Berkeley. (The Beast Must Die, Diary entry for 20 August)