Without further ado, let’s get to know our characters and our contributors better!
THE COUSINS, PLAYING THE NAME GAME
Could the interchangeable names be grounds for collecting on a one-size-fits-both life insurance policy? Mrs Bradley thinks so, as does Countdown John, who runs Countdown John’s Christie Journal and reviews Agatha’s celebrated stories there. He comments that “The business of the names is both amusing and quite British, and the source of a possible fraud. I very much like the idea of being able to insure two people under one premium.” Indeed: it’s economical and doubles the chances of a payout.
Veteran reading group members Joyka and Martyn also approve of Gladys Mitchell’s name complications and permutations. Martyn finds the title of Chapter 11 especially apt – “‘What’s in a Name?’ is lovely” – while Joyka remarks, “Isn’t the name mix-up an interesting conundrum? It couldn’t happen today, of course, but even as recently as the 1990s it was easy to just call yourself another name and get away with it.”
She adds, “I am hoping that someone will be able to explain why Clarence is not an appropriate name for a Navy officer.” This is a reference to an opinionated exchange between Mrs B and Jonathan Bradley, where her nephew announces that “Bill’s real name was Clarence, so, of course, he had to be called Bill.” Mrs Bradley’s response takes it a step further: “Yes. Clarence Fullalove does not, somehow, suggest a Naval officer.” Perhaps it would be the amorous surname rather than the gentrified Christian one that would offend at sea?
And another complication: a woman has arrived claiming to have been married to the departed Bill (or Clarence), but just what does her accompanying marriage certificate prove? José explains that the mystery female “calls herself Carol Letchworth Fullalove and is in her early 30s. [But] her marriage certificate is dated in 1920.” If the present story is happening in 1949, that would make the young lady an astonishingly youthful child bride…
THE NATIVES, SIMPLE BUT SAVVY
Martyn agrees: “Ed, the Puckish changeling, makes an interesting appearance here. He expresses dark thoughts (‘Queer how nature prey on nature. Parson talk about the brotherhood of man, but Nature know better I reckon’) which seem to implicate Obury.”
I also enjoyed the sketches of the Wootton brothers, two rustic men who are employed as handymen at the neighboring women’s college, much to their chagrin. Martyn explains that the brothers “have been smeared by the phantom letter writer for sexual misdeeds with the students up at the college. One Wootton, we learn from Miss Hughes, is called Abel. The other, Harry, regards women with ‘complete detestation and fear.’ Could he be Cain to his brother’s Abel? I imagine it’s just another red herring to lead us astray.”
THE NATURALISTS, SURVEYING AND EXCAVATING
Tracy K., who manages the crime fiction website Bitter Tea and Mystery, responds favorably to the story’s outdoors setting and the characters interested in exploring the landscape. She says that “Mr. Mansell and Mr. Obury are particularly interesting; one is an archaeologist, the other is a naturalist. They had both visited around Christmas, then left the area. Now they have returned to work on their projects.”
Indeed, their excavation work moves both the Cotswold dirt and the cluttered plot. Tracy continues: “I loved the long walk to the barrow that Mrs. Bradley, Jonathan, Deborah, and Sally take with Mansell and Obury. Per the dictionaries I consulted, a barrow is a large mound of earth or stones over the remains of the dead. Mr. Mansell plans to dig at a site alongside the barrow since the barrow itself has been dug up and studied in the past. Later, a significant shooting takes place [here].”
Martyn fills in some (plot) holes with this summary and speculation: “It seems that Ed saw Obury with Bill (or Clarence) the night he died, which provokes a sharp glance from Obury. We note that Jonathan didn’t register this exchange, so it could be significant. Especially with the revelation in Chapter 14 that a probable attempt was made on Ed’s life (the rifle attached to the gate at Groaning Spinney), followed by the indubitable shenanigans around the shooting of Ed in Chapter 15 when he lies in the trench for safety.”
Countdown John appreciated Mrs Bradley’s subtle syntax and the clever way Gladys Mitchell presents a line with alternate meanings for speaker and audience (in this case, Emming, Mansell, and Obury). Here’s Mrs Bradley’s line of dialogue with the accompanying text: ‘“Ed Brown was shot at, just after half-past twelve.” The comma indicated in her voice prevented the statement from being a lie, but this fine shade of meaning was lost upon her hearers.’ Adds Countdown John, “What a great line that is.”
THE PSYCHOANALYST, SELF-PRESERVATION EXPERT
Judging from her dialogue and actions, Mrs Bradley has a clear idea of how the many threads tie together. For the readers and characters trying to keep up with her logic, however, the experience is generally more frustrating. Joyka explains that “Mrs B has started to investigate, quietly and on her own finally, and she must be on the right track. Why else would she have to plug a balloon at the spinney gate with her revolver after the exhumation!”
Tracy also likes to see a busy Mrs B. She writes, “In the later chapters of this section there is more action, less talk, which is more to my liking. Mrs Bradley has returned to London and gets an invitation to an event. She immediately figures out that this is part of a plot but decides to go along with the invitation. We get to see George, her chauffeur, in this section of the story.” Joyka applauded the appearance of Mrs Bradley’s reliable factotum: “I was so happy to see solid, dependable George.”
It is always fun when Gladys Mitchell sends up the image of the elderly detective through her own exotic creation. It is perhaps the author paying homage to benign but astute old lady characters like Miss Marple. Martyn says, “It was a real treat to see the return of the eccentric, grotesque Mrs Bradley, provoking horror with her ‘repulsive bundle of dead-looking natural-coloured wool’, and her huge wooden knitting needles.”
As comical as the scene is, it is not without menace. Asks Martyn, “Yet even though the intruder carries a commando knife, and is clearly intent on something nefarious, Mrs Bradley lets him off with a caution. Why?” But the still-hobbling Tiny seems ill-matched against his adversary. Joyka remembers that “Mrs B chucks Tiny’s knife onto the roof with a flick of her wrist.” Indeed, it’s a gesture in keeping with her persona of earlier tales, where the aging analyst could ensnare a culprit’s arm in a grip of iron or throw a knife at a paper target and hit the bullseye every time.
THE PSYCHOANALYST, MEDICALLY MISTAKEN
One of the many clues to be discovered and considered in these chapters is an “empty packet of aspirin tablets” found half buried in the badgers’ sett. Mrs Bradley concludes that it was not there while the winter snow blanketed the area, and with that realization she makes a rather surprising (although perhaps characteristic) choice. Countdown John observes that “Mrs Bradley's deliberate destruction of what she believes to be a false clue to avoid muddying the waters is interesting. It is also very arrogant –she should at least have kept it in case it is important.” I’m inclined to agree.
But there’s another headache-inducing aspect to the aspirin business here, and it’s a mistake that Countdown John’s wartime dispensary nurse Agatha Christie would never have made. Chris B. reports.
I have only one rather weak, hypothetical point to offer in the author’s defense. We learn that Mrs Bradley believes the packet was planted by someone to throw suspicion on Tiny for drugging his cousin. So it is just possible (although a stretch) to believe that it was a villager who was uninformed of aspirin’s effects and not the psychoanalyst, who saw through the clue and its anticipated deception. If that were the case, though, one wonders why Gladys Mitchell didn’t just have her criminal leave an empty packet of sleeping pills on the ground instead. A packet featuring pills of even the mildest no-prescription dosage would create the desired suggestion.
Continuing a thematic thread from last week’s discussion, Chris also notes that “her deduction that aspirin ‘of course, suggested the presence of a woman’ does not seem reliable either. Possibly this is a further instance of 1950s gender assumptions, as if no real man would stoop to self-medication even for a migraine.”
THE AUTHOR, AND A TELLING WEAKNESS
Tracy gets to the heart of an unsatisfying narrative choice often found in Gladys Mitchell’s later mystery stories (and sometimes in her earlier ones). Tracy observes, “I find that sometimes the investigating portion of the Mrs Bradley mysteries is less than satisfying. Possibly because I get confused by all the theories and mention of important discoveries that don't move my understanding of the story forward, even if they satisfy Mrs Bradley. I prefer the scenes with more action, or when the possible suspects interact with Mrs B.”
Adding to this justifiable criticism, José observes that too many clues are sometimes more defeating than too few. He writes, “I don't feel able to differentiate what might have some relationship with the case at hand and other aspects that might end up being insignificant. At times, the plot seems clear and straightforward, though occasionally it turns out to be more convoluted than what might be desirable.” José continues, “The characters are very well drawn, but it is difficult to determine accurately the role they play, and it would have been advisable, like in theatre plays, to offer a list of dramatis personae (characters involved) to help the reader.”
I think José and Tracy are reacting in part to Mitchell’s penchant for characters theorizing through conversations that cover multiple topics in bewildering fashion, with little or no resolution of ideas by the end of the scene. In a way, they are playful examinations of clues in the spirit of a fair-play mystery story: the detective (via the author’s hand) reminds and teases Watson and reader with the evidence collected to date. The sleuth here is not ready yet to reveal the significance of, say, the discovered dog leashes or the glowing balloon tied to the gate, and when asked about them, Mrs Bradley will answer elliptically and her questioner will then move to another unexplained element. The cumulative result can be frustrating, and many readers – me certainly included – find themselves uncertain of what to save and what to dismiss after these exchanges.
THE READERS, CAUTIOUS YET OPTIMISTIC
As we make our way to the final chapters, the group contributors all seem ready to persevere, despite some rocky ground and, occasionally, poor visibility. Even with an uphill climb, everyone seems to have found much to appreciate, and I have greatly enjoyed hearing from the group and seeing the landscape through their eyes. I’m especially grateful that my fellow trekkers consistently point out all the fantastic flora and fauna that I would surely have missed walking this remarkable countryside on my own!
Final thoughts before we finish our tour:
From Martyn: “I found these chapters to be brisker, more entertaining, and after a quick second read, more satisfying than the previous five.”
From Tracy: “As usual, I have no idea where [the many plot points] are heading, [but] I am enjoying the story and look forward to finding out how it all ends.”
And Joyka shares a line from the text that’s “pure GM gold”: ‘Here she squatted like a benevolent toad and appeared to lapse into meditation.’
Next week, we meditate on Groaning Spinney’s final five chapters. Squatting like a benevolent toad is optional. Please send your comments – NB that we will avoid major spoilers in the blog post – to firstname.lastname@example.org by Tuesday, December 28 if possible. Happy holidays and thanks for reading!