First published: UK, Michael Joseph, 1983
The Greenstone Griffins is the story of Jessica Denefield, a country girl who, as a child, becomes obsessed by a pair of candle-holders in the shape of the fabulous creatures called griffins. Because of two fatal accidents—or what appear to be accidents—she believes that the griffins have the power to work evil and her fascination with them increases.
Jessica rationalises this feeling as she grows older, but the griffins continue to haunt her. In an apparent coincidence, she sees them next in a shop which shortly afterwards is burnt out in puzzling circumstances. But the griffins are not destroyed: subsequently they appear in the window of a flat belonging to a mysterious French woman who once figured in the second of the deaths that occurred during Jessica’s childhood. Still obsessed by the greenstone figures, Jessica calls at the flat, only to find the murdered body of the tenant. It is chillingly clear that one of the griffins has been used as the murder weapon.
When Jessica falls under police suspicion, her cause is taken up by Mrs. Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, who brings the true culprits to book by a mixture of deduction, common sense and applied psychiatry.
This is fresher Mitchell than had been written for quite some time. Mitchell is evidently trying to return to the classic ages. We have cackling and reptilian Mrs. Bradley instead of the blander Dame Beatrice, a rural background, and a murder committed in the 1920s — and no Laura.
The narrator is one Jessica Denefield, a young woman obsessed with the greenstone griffins. Like Capella Babbacombe-Starr in The Whispering Knights, she associates a certain group of objects with a mystical world of the imagination and fairy-tales. The death of an old woman in a burnt-out summerhouse was caused by the griffins; and the griffins killed the squire’s only son in a shooting accident while being used as target practice. So, at any rate, says her childhood imagination. It is when she is an adult that the griffins begin to influence her own life. An antique shop — The Greenstone Griffins — is burnt to the ground, and she finds the dead body of a mysterious French blackmailer bludgeoned to death with one of the griffins. Jessica purchases the flat in which the corpse was found, but is forced to resign from her job as a school teacher in the village of Willowford (read Brentford — it is obvious that Jessica is Mitchell herself). Jessica makes the acquaintance of Mrs. Bradley (“a practising psychiatrist … and holder of all the doctorates I’ve ever heard of except that of Doctor of Divinity”), whose curiosity and compassion lead her to take up Jessica’s case.
The emergence of the killers is well-handled, but there are a few loose plot ends: the burning of the antique shop, the history of the greenstone griffins, and why Bond the grocer was crawling around the attic, although the reader should be able to supply answers to these questions himself. Since this book was the final Mitchell published during her lifetime, it is reasonable to believe that had she been healthier she would have corrected these errors. Apart from these small problems, Griffins is a fine last hurrah for Mitchell.
The Times (H.R.F. Keating, 24th March 1983):
The past seems to bring out the very best in Mitchell. Here it’s a young teacher fifty years ago, mystery, savoursome Chilterns speech.
Times Literary Supplement (T.J. Binyon, 1st July 1983):
The griffins of the title are a pair of candlesticks, seen once in a country house by a child, and associated by her with evil. Later they turn up again in her life, linked with a murder which she is believed to have committed. Luckily Mrs. Beatrice Lestrange Bradley is at hand to sort the matter out: Gladys Mitchell’s latest book is without doubt her best for some time. Set in an indeterminate era—which gives off, however, a strong whiff of the 1930s—it has a beautifully observed rural background and a schoolmistress heroine; educational establishments have always been Miss Mitchell’s forte, and one suspects that an autobiographical detail or two might be concealed here. Plot is satisfyingly neat, and the whole is couched in the author’s inimitable style, almost unaltered since her first book, published fifty-four years ago.