Groaning Spinney

A review of Groaning Spinney by Gladys Mitchell – 221218

Also going by the title of Murder in the Snow, which the latest reprint uses, Groaning Spinney is the twenty-third in Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley series and was originally published in 1950. By her standards this is a conventional, relatively straightforward murder mystery which progresses in a linear and logical fashion. She resists the temptation to distort the conventions of the genre to near breaking point and to bury her reader in an avalanche of arcana.

Indeed, there is barely any detection, very few surprises and an obvious set of suspects, where the motivation is more the mystery than the whodunit. It is as if Mitchell has put her experimenting to one side and has concentrated on producing a “normal” novel, toning down the complexity of her plot in favour of developing a set of interesting characters and imagining how they would react to the situations they find themselves in.

Nonetheless, there is still a dark undertone to the book with a high body count, five humans in all and two dogs and two cats. The murder of Bill Fullalove is especially gruesome and sadistic. Of course, it would not be a Mitchell tale without an element of the supernatural, this time an old tale of a parson who was found dead, slumped over a gate near Groaning Spinney, having either been set upon or been roaring drunk. I like to think the latter. On Christmas Eve there is a report of a sighting of the ghost over the gate and later Bill Fullalove’s body is found in the same position.

The book is set around Christmas time, at least the opening chapters are. Mrs Bradley has chosen to spend the festive period with her nephew, Jonathan LeStrange, and his wife, Deborah, in their new house near Groaning Spinney. In a spirit of neighbourliness, Jonathan invites Tiny and Bill Fullalove to spend Christmas there and, to their dismay, they bring two unexpected guests, a naturalist and an archaeologist. Mrs Bradley, who murder most foul follows round, takes an instant dislike to them all and, unbeknown to Johnathan, Deborah has her own reasons for disliking Tiny.

As well as Bill, their housekeeper goes missing, presumed dead and probably murdered, the Fullalove’s dogs and cats disappear, save for Worry, and several of the worthies in the village receive anonymous letters. As Mrs Bradley digs into the mystery she discovers an insurance fraud, tangled marital relationships, and dishonour amongst thieves. She is certain she has got to the bottom of things by the three-quarter mark of the book but what she lacks is proof. Slowly but surely, she recovers the typewriter, unravels the fraud and the identity of the supposed beneficiaries, and sets her plan to bring everything to a head which they do in a dramatic and tragic denouement. Mrs Bradley evinces no remorse over the chain reaction she has set in motion.

There is a languid feel to the investigation which is stretched over some months, and this reflects itself in the narrative which lacks a bit of oomph until the end. The book seems overlong as much of the mystery has evaporated long before the reader reaches the final page. Unusually, I got the sense that Mitchell rather undercooked the supernatural element, which was acknowledged, formed a central part of Will’s murder, but was left hanging in the air.

Mitchell compensates for some of the plot’s deficiencies with her usual acerbic wit, and some fine descriptive writing, becoming almost Loracian in her appreciation of the terrain and its stark beauty. She also produces some fine characters, most notably Ed Brown whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the area’s flora becomes invaluable to all parties. There is also a Dickensian feel to the names she has bestowed on some of the protagonists, enhancing the sense of a place stuck in a time warp. Her chauffeur, George, appears from time to time in the story, but her secretary, Laura, only fleetingly.

It was an enjoyable read and certainly one I would recommend to someone looking to see what Mitchell was all about. Be warned, though, compared with her earlier novels, this is very much an outlier.

Witches’ Broom

A winter woodland walk, an opportunity to admire the deciduous trees’ skeletal frames with their filigree of twigs against the lowering sky, to hear the creaking of the boughs in the wind. Something about a Silver Birch (Betula pendula) catches the eye, five dense, ball-like masses of stunted twigs hanging from its branches. The mind runs riot. Creations of an industrious mammal or home to an unusually large bird? The truth more prosaic; a woody deformity known as Witches’ broom.

While many woody plant species, whether deciduous or evergreen, are prone to developing Witches’ brooms, in Britain they are usually seen on birch. Some trees have one, others several, and they can form anywhere from the lower parts of the tree to the uppermost branches. They also vary in size, some barely detectible with the naked eye, others large and easily seen, even in the summer.

Witches’ brooms have an uncanny resemblance to a besom, a broom made from a bundle of twigs. As well as for sweeping floors, besoms, at least in popular imagination, were used by witches to fly around on, the first depiction of which appeared in marginalia of a 1451 edition of Martin Le Franc’s Le Champion des Dames. It was an easy leap for the mediaeval mind to believe that these masses of twiggy growths were deposited by witches in the first place, especially in the absence of a more rational explanation.

In mediaeval Germany they were called “Hexenbesen”, which, translated directly into English, gives us Witches’ broom as well as the verb “to hex”, to bewitch, and “besom”. Witches also used them as stopping places or nests (“Hexennester”), as did elves, hobgoblins, and mares. Mares were spirits whose particular trait was to sit on the chest of a sleeper and cause them to have bad dreams, from which we have derived the word nightmare. “Mahrnester” or mare’s nest is the alternative German word for a Witches’ broom.

Unlike Mistletoe, with which they are often confused, Witches’ brooms are not parasites stealing the water and nutrients of their unfortunate hosts but forms of abnormal growth in the tree’s cells. When growing normally, a tree or shrub will exhibit what botanists call apical dominance, the plant producing a hormone, auxin, which slows the growth of the lateral or side stems and allows the central or apical stem to grow taller and compete for light.

Organisms such as fungi, mites, aphids, ironically, Mistletoe, and in British birches the ascomycete fungus, Taphrina betulina, can upset this process by inducing the tree to create cytokinin, a form of phytohormone, which interferes with its ability to regulate bud growth in a certain area. Green buds first appear on the tree and can often remain as buds for several years until they grow into shortened branches or slender twigs. Each of these will then potentially produce more small buds which will either fall off or themselves sprout into yet more twigs. Over time the tree will have produced a bundle of tightly packed twigs in that area.

Some defect in the tree, often caused by scarring or clumsy pruning, offers the micro-organisms the opportunity to enter the tree and trigger the formation of brooms. They rarely harm the tree, just reducing flowering in the affected area of the tree. They also offer a haven for other organisms, although not to witches, several species of moth reliant upon certain types of Witches’ brooms for food and shelter for their larvae.

The White Priory Murders

A review of The White Priory Murders by Carter Dickson – 221216

Carter Dickson, the nom de plume of the eminent John Dickson Carr, is one of the pre-eminent masters of the impossible murder, a death that occurs in circumstances, often a locked room, that baffles all but the most adroit lateral thinker. The White Priory Murders, originally published in 1934 and now reissued as part of the excellent British Library Crime Classics series, is reputed to contain one of the finest in detective fiction. I was intrigued to see what all the fuss was about.

The circumstances of the murder of actress, Marcia Tait, are all that you could ask of an impossible crime. Her body is found in a pavilion, a sort of outhouse away from the White Priory. There has been a heavy snowfall and the only footprints are those of the man who discovered the body. The doctor confirms that Tait was murdered after the snow had fallen. Never mind whodunit, how was she killed. It is a baffling set of circumstances involving a murderer with a high degree of ingenuity and one that can only be unravelled by the eccentric genius of Sir Henry Merrivale, whose second outing this is.

It left this reader baffled and Carr prolongs the reader’s agonies by putting forward a couple of theories, each pretty convincing in their own right only to knock them down again. The solution is even more left field. Clues are there in the text, in particular the architecture of the place, the characteristics of certain motor cars and the obligatory dog that barks on occasion and falls silent on others, but I was not smart enough to put it all together.

Perhaps part of that is because, excellent as the central puzzle is, the book is a bit of a slog. The crime had happened before James Boynton, Merrivale’s American nephew, a house guest at the White Priory, had arrived and whilst he was on the scene when Tait’s body was discovered, he and the police led by Chief Inspector Masters have to rely on testimony provided by the guests and residents of the house, each of whom have their own agendas. The investigation really only gets going when Merrivale, HM as he is known, arrives.

Merrivale is a force of nature, a bundle of eccentricities, rude, blunt, abrupt, more than a little sexist, but with a razor-sharp brain. The tone of the book lights up and the pace cranks up a gear or two with his arrival. It needed it.

Tait’s is not the only murder. Her director, Rainger, is strangled. There are also some near misses. One of the characters, thinking he has committed a murder off stage, so to speak, attempts suicide and Tait, before her untimely demise had survived an encounter with a box of poisoned chocolates and an attempt to push her down some stairs. Another female guest, Louise Canifest, is found in the corridor on the night of Tait’s murder raving about a prowler in the passageway. There are a lot of odd goings-on for HM to noodle through.

Tait, having bombed on the London stage, has found fame and fortune in the movie business, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Rainger and her publicist, Emery. However, she wants to rub her critics’ noses in it by triumphing on the stage and is likely to take the lead part in a play backed by Lord Camifest and written and produced by John and Maurice Bohun, whose house the White Priory is. Rainger and Emery are anxious to thwart her return. There is also some mystery as to Tait’s marital status as she plays fast and loose with some of the key protagonists. Emotions are running high, but is the motivation strong enough to result in murder?      

Billed a mystery for Christmas, there is precious little festive about the story, save for the snow. There is some cheer, though, in the almost obligatory love interest as Boynton falls head over heels in love and secures his prize at the end.

The book is well worth the cover price for the intricacy of its central puzzle and the solution, but, be warned, there are some hard yards to be done before you get there.