THE GREENSTONE GRIFFINS (1983)
1983 Michael Joseph.
“I read about the case, of course,” said Ferdinand, Mrs. Bradley’s lawyer son. “So you are taking up the cudgels on behalf of this girl.”
“Not at all. I am no crusader. The case interests me from the psychological angle. The girl seems to be obsessed by a pair of greenstone griffins to which she attributes supernatural power to work evil. She connects them with the deaths of an old lady and a young man, conflagration at a shop and now this murder.”
“Crime is always interesting and you have certainly had some success in solving more than one mysterious murder. Here’s power to your elbow, but watch your step, won’t you? I have only one mamma and I wouldn’t like to see her liquidated by some plug-ugly in an obscure riverside town. I suppose you can trust this girl?”
“Miss Denefield is a tall, strong child,” said Mrs. Bradley, with an alligator’s mirthless grin. “Oh, yes, I shall exercise care and discretion. You may be sure of that. A fractured skull would not improve my appearance.”
The first time Jessica Denefield encountered the Greenstone Griffins she was seven years old. The fantastical, heavy pair of jade candle holders adorned the mantel of the village squire’s manor house, and rural Jessica—who was invited to the Hall for a school party—knew that the carved ornaments carried a dark magic. Weeks later, when the squire’s son dies while practicing target shooting, Jessica cannot shake the feeling that the griffins had a hand directing the family’s fate. Her father is called as a witness at the inquest; he worked as a gardener at the Hall and heard (but did not see) the fatal shot. The coroner rules the death an accident, acquitting Ronald Havant’s shooting partner and school chum, a young man named Stone.
Years later, an adult Jessica—now a schoolteacher—notices the griffins in a village shop window, but a fire consumes the store before she can enquire. Insurance fraud is the likely explanation, but their destructive nature seems uncanny. Jessica also learns the story of a fatal fire set by the unfortunate Ronald who as a boy played with matches and caused the death of a visiting guest in the summer house. When the ominous griffins appear once more, this time in an apartment window above a grocer’s shop, curiosity and coincidence prove too much. Jessica notices one of the carved figures is missing and calls upon the apartment owner for an explanation. She receives one: the occupant (rumored variously to be a prostitute, smuggler, or fortune-teller) is dead, bludgeoned by the missing griffin.
The town’s police inspector views Jessica with suspicion, and looks even more askance when she and her mother move in to the dead woman’s apartment. (Jessica claims she was lured by the low price of the rental, and while true, it appears the griffins’ dark charms are still holding sway.) The publicity from her involvement in the unsolved murder forces her to transfer to a position at a barge school. Her pupils are transitory, but she is fortunate to meet the traveling Home Office psychoanalyst Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, who takes an interest in her case. Mrs. Bradley finds a pattern linking these deaths with the drowning of a simple-minded maid named Maisie Touch; the detective must step briskly to avoid becoming another casualty of the Greenstone Griffins.
The last Mrs. Bradley title to be published within Gladys Mitchell’s lifetime, The Greenstone Griffins is a fitting finale and an admirable tribute to its author. The story occurs at a time before the sleuth acquires her O.B.E. title or Laura, her energetic secretary. (Chauffeur George is in service, as is the soon-to-be-married Miss Cummings, Laura’s predecessor.) But many story elements are here that Mitchell enjoyed and excelled at: a schoolteacher heroine, a charmingly rustic setting, a jovial sense of humor, and a touch of the supernatural.
Over 80 years old and with an equal number of books to her name, the author here still writes with assuredness and clarity, and her evocation of the village of Longwater Sedge and its inhabitants (particularly in the first chapters) is agreeably detailed, engaging, and lively. If the mystery plot never reaches the quality of her best tales, neither does it flounder or threaten to derail. It is quite in keeping with Gladys Mitchell’s work generally from the 1960s on: the story is constructed not so much as a fair-play puzzle as a series of interviews and incidents that lead to the identity of a mostly off-stage culprit. My biggest criticism of The Greenstone Griffins might be Mitchell’s handling of the climactic confession. Before being confronted with any real evidence, the guilty party sings like the proverbial canary; it is a contrived step that feels unrealistic, even for the world of the mystery novel.
There are other author eccentricities of which I’ve grown accustomed but which might frustrate readers. For example, Mitchell never provides surnames for two principal figures, and Ferdinand Lestrange’s wife is referred (rather biblically) as just that -- “Ferdinand’s wife” -- when she shares a scene with the detective. (Her name, provided four decades earlier in When Last I Died, is Caroline.) But the elderly author can be forgiven for not wanting to revisit her voluminous canon to check a name. The fact that Gladys Mitchell wrote well and prolifically until the end of her days is cause for celebration.