Reviewed by Ruth Latta
by B. Lloyd
Grey Cells Press, Holland House Books
2013, ISBN 978-1-909374-57-7, Paperback: 416 pages
B. Lloyd’s mystery, Greenwood Tree, contains all the ingredients for a story as compelling as A.S. Byatt’s Possession. The “present” of the story is the 1927 world of budding mystery novelist Julia Warren, who leaves her London flat for her Lichfield roots in search of a plot for her next who-done-it.
Lichfield, in the East Midlands, is famous for its cathedral and as the birthplace of Dr. Samuel Johnson. It is also home to an annual festival, the “Greenhill Bower”, a procession and carnival which may have originated in pre-Roman Britain. The celebration includes the Green Man’s Morris Dance. The author tells us in her end notes that a representation of this pagan fertility god may be seen in St. Chad’s Head Chapel of Lichfield Cathedral at Longdon Church.
The novel opens in 1783 with two poachers on the Morton estate near Lichfield returning home through a grove. They hear a great roar and experience a thunderstorm and an earthquake which hurls them down a slope to a brook. This violence in nature recurs in the 20th century chapters; some shady human behaviour recurs also.
In London, Julia’s bookseller gives her an early 19th century memoir, Recollections of G. Oddman, Agent, an account of some events in Lichfield in the 1780s. Mr. Oddman has written his recollections as a play in which each characters’ name indicates his/her major character trait. We meet “Sir Mildew” and his neighbours, the “Worldlys”, with three marriageable daughters. An army officer named Vellior (not quite an anagram for “Oliver”) appears and establishes a hold over Sir Mildew. Some readers may be amused by the names and intrigued when the same cast of characters turns up later under their real names. Other readers may find it tedious. Eventually, the author has Julia explain that “Sir Mildew” is “Sir Morton” and that the “Worldly” sisters are the “Warren” sisters.
Julia takes the Oddman recollections with her to her Aunt Isobel’s home in Lichfield. Her aunt, sympathetic to her need for a plot, gives her some old family letters and the 18th century diary of an ancestor, Henrietta Warren. These three sources all tell of an army officer, Oliver, who comes to Lichfield and wins acceptance as a guest at the home of the chief local landowner, Sir Morton. When Sir Morton dies unexpectedly, Oliver inherits the Morton estate, wastes money and seduces and marries a local heiress, Mary Warren, whom he then treats badly. Meanwhile, odd things are happening on the Morton estate in 1927, and Julia is having strange dreams.
The 1927 heir to the estate is Simeon Morton, a childhood acquaintance of Julia’s, whom she has never liked. He is leading a wastrel life and flirting with a young woman who already has a boyfriend. Simeon needs to sell “Gronny Patch”, a grove on his property, but first it must be cleared. Local men, who try, find themselves engulfed in a roaring storm with earthquake sensations, and refuse to return. Old legends resurface about weird experiences in this copse. Julia’s research leads her to information about the ancient, capricious “green man” deity – a male Mother Nature.
One of the attractive features of the novel is the use of old style font for some of the 1780s passages, and the illustrations in silhouette, popular in the 18th century. The novel is smoothly written, the 1920s slang authentic-sounding.
Though all of the elements in the novel are worthwhile and interesting, there are too many of them and B. Lloyd has not combined them to best effect. The 1780s story is presented through family letters, a journal, two old books, narration by an omniscient narrator, and characters’ dreams. One or two of these would have sufficed. The Oddman recollections, which struck this reader as overwrought and too consciously clever, might have worked better if presented later.
Many stock historical mystery devices are used, including a hidden room, an ominous barking dog, a strange man who pops up unexpectedly, a church register with missing pages, a “poisoner’s diary”, and the spooky place – the sinister grove known as “Gronny Patch.” At one point Julia observes that “the Patch was popping up increasingly; the journal, the Tale, the little book brought by Mr. Grenall.” This sentence exists to orient readers being buffeted about in a forest of detail and devices.
Halfway through the novel’s 400 pages, the green man legend is explained, and at that point, if not earlier, an alert reader can guess the outcome. The parallels between Oliver’s behaviour in the 1780s and Simeon’s, in 1927, is too obvious too early. Lloyd’s novel is a Holland House “Grey Cells” release. “Grey Cells” suggests that these novels provide a workout for the brain, but Greenwood Tree is more of a “brain teaser” than mental nourishment.