POISON PENS AND PREJUDICES
Tracy K., who maintains the crime fiction blog Bitter Tea and Mystery, offers this overview of the circulating poison-pen missives: “In this section, we learn more about the anonymous letters received by various people in the village. Mrs Bradley talks to Robert Emming, the choirmaster, about the two he received and then the doctor calls and says he has received two also. Tiny Fullalove receives one at the nursing home he has been confined to after his accident. Most of them are typewritten, so there has been a search for who has a typewriter or access to one. Many of the letters mention Bill Fullalove's death; they indicate that it was murder and that the body should be exhumed. So the letters and the murder (if it was murder) seem to have a connection.”
Countdown John also neatly explains the quandary facing Justice of the Peace Jonathan Bradley and the constabulary: how do they deal with the anonymous letter writer and those typewritten accusations? “An exhumation would give [the writer] some excitement, they have achieved their aim, and the [police] force may become a laughing stock - but it also puts any rumours to bed or demonstrates that a crime has been committed. Is it always true that there's no smoke without fire?”
Martyn Hobbs found these chapters rough sledding, and I agree that the author’s stage managing of plot and characters here can cause fatigue. Martyn’s first comment, however, concerns the odd “scarcity of typewriters in the Cotswolds. Why are they so thin on the ground? We know that Jonathan possesses one. It seems that Bill Fullalove once used to have one. But what about the other professionals in the neighbourhood? There’s at least one doctor; there’s Emming the choirmaster; there’s a vicar; then there are all the young women and administrators up at the college. And aren’t there any aspirant writers holed up in the countryside? Can there really only be one typewriter (or two if we find Bill’s) between them all?”
Joyka had difficulty following the many characters, who are often referred to but are not figures we readers are invited to know. She writes, “I am finding it hard to grasp the characters in this book. They seem more nebulous than previous books except for Mrs Bradley’s bunch, of course. Jonathan is starting to step up to the role of squire in these chapters, I find, but he has a rather mundane mind. He can’t imagine an anonymous letter writer being anyone other than a frustrated spinster, for example. The Chief Constable rings true to stereotype: ‘no intuition on my patch - only facts.’ Come to think of it, all of the men seem to have mundane minds!”
Joyka notes that even Dr Fielding automatically assumes the poison pen writer is a woman, and Martyn asks why the assumption of female authorship is so prevalent in these chapters. I suggest that Gladys Mitchell may be toying with the presumption of gender connected to certain types of crimes.
In mystery fiction of the 1920s to the ‘50s, it is not uncommon for detectives, police, and suspects alike to separate men’s methods from women’s, as stereotyped and psychologically questionable as the cataloging by gender may be. For example, stabbing (especially with a stiletto or another elegant knife) and poisoning are considered a woman’s preferred method of dispatch, where shooting or bludgeoning are the messy domains of man. The fact that the story’s “mundane” men – Jonathan, the Doctor, the Chief Constable – all have no problem assuming a secretive, spiteful act like anonymous letter writing is the work of a woman may be winking commentary from an author whose series features two extremely capable women characters (Mrs Bradley and her athletic assistant Laura Gavin) investigating and solving mysteries.
REPRESSION AND REPRODUCTION
Chris B. makes a connection between the villagers’ thwarted desires and Nature’s inevitable course. He writes: “It cannot be said of this Cotswolds scene that its hills are alive with the sound of sexual reproduction; but there is one striking exception to that pattern. The key fact we have been given in the first chapter is not a mystery-clue but the news of Deborah’s pregnancy (typically, she takes charge of her own Annunciation here): she is carrying twins, due to be born in May. So while the unfolding mystery-plot will necessarily be retrospective in reconstructing exactly what happened during the snowbound days of Christmas, the narrative arc of the story is, like Deborah herself, expectant: renewed life in the New Year is awaited.”
Chris finishes connecting theme, setting, and time with these thoughts: “Considered in the light of early 20th-century anthropology – Gladys Mitchell’s awareness of which had been most abundantly displayed in her early masterpiece The Devil at Saxon Wall (1935) – the symbolic significance of Christmas, whether as Christian festival or as a much older pagan one, is that it celebrates the germ of new life that is hidden within Nature’s ‘death’ at the midwinter solstice, destined to emerge as rebirth at springtime/Easter. The novel’s underlying mythic design imagines fertility (motherhood, spring) as the eventual destiny of apparent infertility (midwinter darkness and cold, linked to at least one premature death at the mystery-plot level). Readers of the earlier Christmas mystery Dead Men’s Morris may recall that its action begins just before Christmas 1935 and closes on Whit Monday (the first day of June in 1936). Groaning Spinney also starts just after the winter solstice, although we don’t yet know when it will end.”
WHITTIER AND WRITING
We’ll start this section with another W: the weather. Tracy finds the story’s winter-to-spring seasonal change enjoyable, and I do too. Tracy comments that, “For the first half of the book, the thing that I like the best is the descriptions of the environment around the manor house, the setting of the scenes, the people from the village and their interactions with Mrs. Bradley and Jonathan and Deborah.”
José reminds us that “The thaw brings another surprise. The body of a woman identified as Mrs Dalby Whittier is found in a deep dip in one of the farmer's fields.” Countdown John noticed Jonathan’s reaction to news of the freshly revealed corpse: “Amusingly, Jonathan, a practical man, wants dinner immediately, to Deb's horror, as they may start to get busy pretty quickly.” And Martyn enjoyed the detail that the inquest would be held on the weekend in the schoolhouse, frustrating the schoolchildren who, “to their annoyance, were, of course, strictly excluded”.
As mentioned earlier, a couple contributors found the writing of these middle chapters uneven and sometimes confusing. I would agree: as with many later Gladys Mitchell stories, there are several developments and discussions of events in these chapters, but it can be difficult to know what to pick up and what to discard in terms of information and incident. Martyn has also noted a few careless or contradictory choices in the prose.
Martyn observes: “Towards the end of Chapter 6, ‘Mrs Bradley accepted the change of subject gracefully…’ while barely a page later Jonathan ‘accepted the change of subject with a grin.’ In Chapter 8, we start with a conversation between Mrs B and Sally while they are out taking their morning constitutional. As soon as their conversation ends, Mrs B (who now miraculously appears to be back at the house) dresses for a walk and strides out alone. This uncertainty of location and endless traipsing occurs elsewhere, too.” Concludes Martyn, “Chapter 10 was a bewildering mix of relentless speculation and walking.”
BRADLEYS AND BEHAVIOUR
As was discussed in the prior post, the psychoanalyst detective at the heart of this 1950-published story is more accessible and less alienating than her saurian incarnation of prior decades. The mellowing also makes her easier on her relations, no longer fearful of a sharp poke in the ribs from a bony finger. Tracy comments, “I enjoy Mrs Bradley's relationship with her extended family. I like that they look forward to coming together for Christmas, that they are comfortable with each other (Jonathan and Mrs Bradley bicker lightheartedly over who is going to read the new Nicholas Blake mystery). Mrs Bradley chooses to extend her stay because another cousin, Sally, is visiting Deborah and Jonathan with her dog Rhu.”
Mitchell’s detective is present and vocal, but Groaning Spinney demonstrates a continuing trend as the book series continues into its later decades: it is often a secondary character – usually a family relation, such as Jonathan here, or Laura – who is more immediately connected with the mystery than Mrs Bradley, now acting as consultant and inquisitive observer. In Spinney, Tracy notes, “Mrs Bradley's role grows larger in this section. Even though it has not been established that Bill Fullalove was murdered, she assumes that is the case (although she has no real evidence) and discusses this issue with local authorities and with Jonathan, Deborah, and the villagers.”
Joyka sees another personality change from those earlier tales where Mrs Bradley would actively make things happen. I attribute it to that transitional shift in character from a force of nature to a more introspective – and less superhuman – detective. Writes Joyka, “Dr Fielding comes to consult Mrs Bradley and is shocked when Mrs B says she, too, feels Bill Fullalove was murdered. But even then she hangs back. Other than encouraging exhumation, why is Mrs Bradley so reticent about tackling this murder? Not her usual style at all.”
ANIMALS AND ALLUSIONS
Martyn thinks that subtext could shed additional light on Choirmaster Emming’s character: “It’s said (by Jonathan, I believe) that the choirmaster received two nasty letters while the vicar got a third besmirching him. At least one of these letters (according to Emming) alleged that he murdered Bill to conceal his bastardy. When Mrs Bradley picks up on this at the opening of Chapter 6, Emming, for once, is relaxed. Why is that? Is it because he actually has a different, darker secret? I suggest that he might be a closet homosexual (Mrs B described him earlier as having effeminate hands, a cruel mouth and exaggerated manner – not very coded allusions).” It’s an astute observation; in the pages of Golden Age detective fiction, those character attributes usually spoke loudly and clearly to the reader about male characters of a certain persuasion. And if they were fussy antique dealers calling everyone “Dear” and “Darling,” all the better and clearer for many genre writers of the era.
Joyka also noticed some genuinely suspicious animal evidence. She explains that “The mysterious find of the dog collars and leads in the badgers’ sett certainly puts Tiny Fullalove back into the picture. Jonathan has been skeptical of that knee injury right from the first. There has only been a brief mention so far of Tiny’s much loved dogs and cats. This is an interesting clue.”
Martyn also reflected and genuflected on the humble knee: “As all the characters seem inordinately attached to walking, there’s a fascinating moment when Mrs Bradley reflects on the human knee. An interesting exercise with a class might be to ask, ‘What qualities do you associate with the knee?’ I wonder how many students would come up with Mrs B’s ideas? ‘Tricky things, knees. Limber, prayerful, romantic…’ Very cute.”
For an interesting post-war porcine detail we return to Chris, who sheds light on “the choirboys’ pig-club” from Chapter 6. Chris explains that “Jonathan’s mention of this recent village scandal can be understood only in the context of the food-rationing regime of the time, and the standing temptation for rural villagers to evade it by making undeclared purchases from local farmers.”
FINDING THE WAY FORWARD
Joyka reports that “Things start moving quickly” by Chapter 10. “It is as if whatever Mrs Bradley was waiting for has happened.” Perhaps too much has been happening too quickly. Martyn’s thoughts at the end of this section are these: “There are so many uncertainties, so many characters, so many letters, so much walking, and then the late entry of the missing dogs Lassie and Cripes and Mrs Dalby Whittier’s dodgy curry, that I’ve lost my bearings. So like Mrs B, I too was relieved to find a mention of Sir Thomas Browne at the close of Chapter 10. It was a comforting, substantial sort of reference. After all, he wrote Urne Buriall which, in the context, fits nicely.” Urne Buriall, I should append, has as its subtitle “A discourse of the sepulchral urns lately found in Norfolk”.
It is now, José writes, that “the story begins to get more interesting. A first murder emerges and there's a rational expectation that a previous death that was considered accidental could have also been murder. New pieces of information begin to surface, but the puzzle is still far from beginning to shape. Opportunity and motive are not fully clear yet.”
Let us see if the weather clears and if the plot thickens or thins next week, as the Mitchell Mystery Reading Group looks at Chapters 11 to 15. (Personally, I found myself on more solid ground in this upcoming section.) If you are interested in contributing your observations for this part of the story, please email your comments to Jason@jasonhalf.com by Tuesday, December 21. Thanks to everyone who took part this week!