Groaning Spinney

Mitchell, Gladys - Groaning Spinney (1950)



Review by Nick Fuller


This 1950 tale of ghosts and murder in the snow is first-class Gladys Mitchell, an admirably clear, concise, and straightforward story, well-plotted, and boasting one of Mitchell’s most satisfyingly well-clued solutions: the murderer’s identity is suspected from the beginning, although his accomplice is revealed midway through Chapter 16 of 20.


The setting, like the earlier Dead Men’s Morris (1936), which also involves ghosts, is a family Christmas. While Dead Men’s Morris was set in rural Oxfordshire, here the setting is the Cotswolds, Mitchell’s ability to evoke landscape shining through as always, as she depicts a picture of a world “desolate, enchanted, supernormal and apt … for treason, magic, stratagems and snow”. Sure enough, on the snow-coated gate where the ghost of the Rev. Horatius Pile, “the local parson of about eighteen-fifty … a most realistic-looking corpse”, is seen hanging “on moonlight nights at between twelve and one”, and following a series of manifestations (footprints in the snow, sightings of the ghost), Mrs. Bradley’s nephew Jonathan finds what he believes at first to be “something brought out of nothingness by the snow itself; a thing of fearful import; a creature, and yet not such because it was an emanation and nothing created”, but instead turns out to be the dead body of one of two cousins — dead from natural causes, unusual because the victim had been recently vetted by the doctor of an insurance company and pronounced a first-class life. How, then, did the victim die (and, like Mrs. Bradley, the reader at once suspects murder); why he was he killed; and who killed him? It may be said that the elaborate method is more ingenious than usual for Mitchell.


The case is further complicated by a series of poison-pen letters calling for an autopsy, and accusing various villagers of various misdeeds; the discovery of the housekeeper’s body in the snow, dead of belladonna poisoning; a poisoned curry; missing animals; the possibilities of insurance fraud due to a confusion of identities; several murderous attacks on a villager (but which one?); and several other attacks on Mrs. Bradley, including a midnight burglary and an attempt at ambushing her car.


While some find Mrs. Bradley to be rather cosy in this one, I found her to be at the top of her class here. Although she is more human and less reptilian and malignant than in other books, she cackles away like a hen-house with the fox on the prowl, is witty throughout (‘You talk in riddles.’ ‘So does the Sphinx, yet it preserves its reputation for wisdom.’), is both active and cerebral, and — in one of her more vindictive and outrageous actions since 1935, for, as she says, ‘Revenge is my aim, in this instance’ — engineers the death of the murderer, following a fine climax at a fox-hunt.


In short, this is first-class Mitchell, well-written, humorous, lively, and with a particularly finely honed plot.