"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.
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|
"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
"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.