Groaning Spinney (1950) by Gladys Mitchell

Today’s title has been reprinted a few times, so some readers may be more familiar with its alternative title, Murder in the Snow. In this second title, the Yuletide setting is more evident, and this is a setting which fits in well with my tendency to read Christmas set mysteries outside of Christmas.

Our story begins with Mrs Bradley deciding to spend Christmas with her favourite nephew Jonathan Bradley, (and his much approved of wife, Deborah,) in the Cotswolds in their newly acquired country manor house. As the first few chapters unwind, we encounter the various residents of the area and their seasonal guests, including the local ghost of a parson who died in the 19th century, who according to two guests has made a recent appearance leaning over a gate. As the holiday progresses so does the snow, making outside travelling a hazardous and restricted activity and there is also a problem of a poison pen writer doing the rounds. Eventually we get our corpse, who is aptly found where the ghost is usually seen. Yet the dead body is not one you’d expect, nor is their seemingly accidental death. The local land agent comes under much suspicion, despite his convenient knee injury. Alongside this big mystery, there are also a number of smaller odd goings on for Mrs Bradley and her family to puzzle out, though they give themselves plenty of time, with this novel’s finale appearing in the spring…

Overall Thoughts

I’m not the biggest of Gladys Mitchell fans, but when I read this book I realised….

 

… that this hasn’t changed at all! Although to be fair the first third of this book is the best. It is unusual to see Mrs Bradley so indecisive as she is at the commencement of the book, in deciding whether to go to the Cotswolds or not for Christmas, as well as about her unfathomable feelings of repulsion towards a resident there. But fear not, Mrs Bradley, is soon true to form and even gets likened to Lady Macbeth, though her pushing others into action is at least intended to solve a murder and not commit one. We also get a rare glimmer into her childhood when it is said that she ‘had not cried since she was four, but […] believed that crying at the pictures was a morbid symptom and reflected deep-seated neurosis built on self-pity, made no contribution to the discussion.’

The cast for this story is quite a large one and Gladys Mitchell does indulge in some unusual names such as Tiny Fullalove and the Dickensian named Worry, (a gamekeeper’s dog). Many of the human characters are attached to a specific occupation such as Tiny who is an ex-policeman who worked in India, Gregory Mansell who is an archaeologist and there is also an emergency training college for women next door to Mrs Bradley’s nephew’s home. To be honest I think there are too many of these occupational themes and as a consequence they are not made much use of. Generally speaking, I don’t think the reader really gets to know the characters that well, so it was hard to maintain interest in them after a while.

Having read a few novels by Mitchell, I would say this is one of her more conventional plots, though like some of her more weird and unusual ones, this one drags on far too long. Very little happens in the first few days of Mrs Bradley’s visit, so it takes a while to arrive at any big hit events. The poison pen angle of the mystery is an interesting thread at the start of the book as it is not easy to decide what the writer’s end game is. Equally a life insurance angle makes the central death more interesting. Yet unfortunately the investigation into all of these events lacks energy and purpose. It takes place over too long a time period and for most of the book the interviews we are privy to yield little in the way of useful information. So how Mrs Bradley arrives at the solution is beyond me, though witnesses at the end of the book do start bothering to mention rather crucial things at Mrs Bradley’s prompting. The solution itself is tortuously strung out over many, many, many chapters, so the slightly unorthodox ending somewhat lacks impact.

Oh well at least it was a free book…

Rating: 3/5

Calendar of Crime: January (9) Snow bound country house mystery

14 comments

  1. Oh Gladys Mitchell. One of the most frequent authors on my DNF pile. I like the idea of Mitchell and when she is on form she can be really interesting and entertaining but she can also be really dense and alienating at times too.

    I keep trying her books thinking I will eventually come across one I will love but so far I have yet to make that connection. Good to know though that this one is unlikely to do it for me either…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the review – and for the warning. I had some hopes for this title, as I’ve heard it’s one of the better mysteries Mitchell wrote. Oh well.

    Then again, I’ve heard good things about Butcher’s Shop and Merlin’s Furlong – and I didn’t glean much enjoyment from either. 😞

    I think to date my first foray into Mitchell was still the best: Death at the Opera. It by the least made sense, if I recall correctly.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A really interesting review! What I remember of Groaning Spinney from my last reading(s) a decade ago is the evocative feeling Mitchell creates of an immersive winter in the Cotswolds. It’s one of her books that, for me, feels like slipping on a comfortable sweater within the first few pages; her books When Last I Died, The Rising of the Moon, and Nest of Vipers also have that effect on me each time I return to them. It is also a story that finds a bridge between the comic busyness of many earlier titles and the staid pacing of later ones. (I would put The Man Who Grew Tomatoes, The Echoing Strangers, and 12 Horses and the Hangman’s Noose also in this in-between camp from the 1950s mysteries…)

    Her later books do have an awful lot of suspect interviewing, but by the late 1960s GM stated that she greatly admired Ivy Compton-Burnett, and that author had pages of dialogue that read like a play script, so maybe she was influenced there. Groaning Spinney, flaws and all, may be an intriguing contender for a future Mitchell Mystery Group reading project; I will have to weigh it against other choices when the time comes! Cheers —

    Liked by 2 people

    • I did like the Christmas atmosphere for the first few chapters. I do wonder if the book would have been better if the whole case took place in the Christmas period, as momentum is lost by making it drag on for months. I wasn’t aware of the ICB influence – thanks for that info!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I definitely remember the rather leisurely timeframe of this mystery; the body is discovered in the spring thaw, I believe? (It’s been a while since I visited it.) There’s something to be said for murder mysteries covering a short amount of time, not least of which is that it speaks well of the detective!

        Like

  4. I had to look back at my own blogpost to try to remember anything about this, and my comments (and criticisms) are very similar to yours, though I enjoyed Mrs Bradley’s awful knitting: I wondered if it was a joke about the contrast with those arch-knitters and fellow sleuths Miss Marple and Miss Silver. I said ‘The investigation seems to go on for months, apparently to accommodate some nature writing about the countryside, which I found pointless and annoying, but the book is well worth it for the first half.’

    Liked by 1 person

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