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.

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