GROANING SPINNEY (1950)
1950 Michael Joseph.
It was a moonless night, fine and rather cold. There was no path to follow, but, ahead of her, and looming against the sky, she could just make out the trees of Groaning Spinney. By crossing the field steeply uphill on a north-west slant, she knew that she would come to the ghostly gate. She took her time. That there was somebody ahead of her, she knew.
When she topped the rise she involuntarily stood still, for there, hanging over the gate, was an eerie, dead-white face most curiously lighted as though by phosphorescence.
Mrs. Bradley walked nearer.
Mrs. Bradley has decided to spend Christmas with her nephew Jonathan and his wife Deb at their home in the Cotswolds. Upon settling in, the psychiatrist soon hears the story of a local apparition: the ghost of a country parson, it is said, can sometimes be seen at night slung over the gate leading to a grouping of trees called Groaning Spinney. As neighbors and locals visit Jonathan with seasonal greetings (for he has inherited, with the purchase of the large house, the mantle of village squire), Mrs. Bradley learns that the ghostly vicar has been spotted that evening by two travellers. She also makes the acquaintance of Tiny Fullalove, a man to whom Mrs. Bradley takes an immediate dislike. She fares better with Tiny's brother Bill, a capable countryman named Will North, and farmhand Ed Brown, who has a knack for befriending and taming wild animals, particularly birds.
After the holiday, various villagers begin to receive anonymous letters carrying accusations and insinuations against themselves and others. The first letters are handwritten, subsequent ones typed. Jonathan points out that their spiteful content usually springs from a kernel of truth; e.g., a note detailing an affair between Tiny and Deb seems to elaborate upon an unwelcome pass Tiny had made previously. In the midst of this, and after a particularly heavy snowfall, the body of Bill Fullalove is found, slumped over the woodland gate in a morbid imitation of the parson's demise a century before.
As Mrs. Bradley theorizes upon the source of the poison pen letters, she makes the acquaintance of the Inspector assigned to the suspicious death and pesters him into exhuming the recently interred body. Another discovery reveals itself with the winter's thaw: the body of a woman, housekeeper to the Fullaloves, is found on the hillside, where it was buried for weeks under deep snow. The finding of dog collars and leads stuck into a rabbit hole provides for Mrs. Bradley further proof of her theory, and as she gets into riding dress to accompany her nephew on a fox hunt, she sets a trap that will flush out the guilty party and run it to ground.
For me, one of the most enjoyable elements of Gladys Mitchell's many books is her excellent rendering of Britain's countryside and her expert use of pastoral settings. In Groaning Spinney, the creation of a snow-covered winter village and its emergence into springtime life and vitality provides the story with a vivid, picturesque seasonal backdrop. As Miss Mitchell related in an interview, she often consults local land ordnance maps for particular settings when constructing her plots, and such attention to detail and physicality pays off. These narrative excursions around and about England's countryside can be tremendous vicarious fun for armchair travellers like myself. (These "travel details" have also provoked grumpy criticism from some readers--Julian Symons comes to mind--but Gladys Mitchell's books wouldn't be the same without these wonderful, evocative settings.)
Groaning Spinney also illustrates another rewarding Mitchell trait: her books are satisfying stories which include elements of crime and murder, as opposed to the traditional Christie-like whodunit. The difference lies partly in content, partly in form. Mystery story elements, such as the discovery of means, methods and motives, are often obscured in Mitchell's stories, but certainly not always, and it's much to the author's credit that her books continue to generate suspense even when the murderer is named halfway through (Death and the Maiden, Three Quick and Five Dead) or even known from the very beginning (Fault in the Structure). In Groaning Spinney events and answers are built upon organically, and it's often defeatist for a Mitchell reader to try to solve the mystery in a conventional sense (i.e., Colonel Mustard in the study with a candlestick--several of her books simply aren't structured like that), the reader must surrender to the author's grand storytelling sensibilities and let her take you on the path she wants to follow.
I can understand how readers familiar and on friendly terms with the whodunit form can be frustrated or incensed by Miss Mitchell's generous narrative excesses and tangled plotlines (again, Julian Symons), but I love (not too strong a word, in my opinion) this unique author's output and thank the bibliographical heavens that she didn't confine herself to the body in the library. As a result, I never know what to expect when I open a heretofore unread Mitchell novel in terms of story, structure, setting, or even quality. And I wouldn't want it any other way.