2/24/11

"Delay in vengeance gives a heavier blow"

Christianna Brand published her first detective novel, Death in High Heels (1941), in the early years of World War II, and was part of the last wave of puzzle orientated detective writers to emerge from the Golden Age. However, despite being a late arrival on the scene, in a world that was torn asunder by war and a waning interest from the publishers for the formal detective story, she quickly managed to claim her spot in the upper-echelons of her craft.

She was absolutely brilliant when it came to clueing, comparable to John Dickson Carr at his most ingenious, and was arguably better than Agatha Christie with the closed-circle of suspects format, but what sets her stories apart from either of them is that Brand tends to make you care for her characters – most notably in London Particular (1952), in which all of the suspects are likeable people who care for one another. This makes her whodunits more than just a game of Clue between the author and a quick-witted reader, but also gives them a penchant for dark and bleak endings.

Death of Jezebel (1948) is one of the more elusive titles in the genre, but one that's worth every effort and penny spend trying to obtain it – as it contains all of Brand's strong points and more!

The first act of this tragedy opens with a prologue in which Johnny Wise, a nice and handsome young man, commits suicide after discovering that his girlfriend has been unfaithful to him. Years later the three main players, Johnny's unfaithful girlfriend, the man with whom she betrayed him and her rotten friend who egged them on, take part in a Exhibition pageant when they suddenly start receiving threatening letters – prophesizing their impending demise (I got a bit worried at this point, since the plot started to resemble one of those awful Hajime Kindaichi mysteries).

With the stage set for murder the actors take their place and before the show comes to a close, Isabel Drew's lifeless body lays amidst a troupe of knights in armor on horseback – murdered in full view of a thousand eyewitnesses, but it seems impossible that anyone could've entered the sealed and watched tower or reach the top unseen to strangle her and throw the body over the balcony. Further complications arise for Cockrill and Charlesworth when, shortly thereafter, a second victim turns up with his head chopped off (Didn't I say this was a lot like Kindaichi?).

Cockrill is a wonderful and a quite interesting detective, very self-deprecating who nonetheless craves to be recognized for his ability as a Great Detective – and I'm sure he made a believer out of Charlesworth when he pieced together the solution behind the impossible nature of Isabel Drew's death. 

The solution in question is quite simply brilliant, although there's nothing simple about the method the murderer employs here, and the devilish clever clues, such as shining armors, colored cloaks and coils of rope, shows her natural gift for clueing and misdirection – making this reader want to kick himself for missing, and disregarding, some of the things that he should've gotten right.

And every bit as ingenious and amusing are the series of false solutions and confessions, both mostly done by the suspects themselves, preceding the final dénouement, which seems to be a recurring theme in Brand's work and the icing on the cake!

Whether it's better or not than Green for Danger (1944), her other masterpiece, is debatable, but both are guaranteed permanent residence on my book shelves.

7 comments:

  1. I know EVERYONE seems to love Green for Danger. I think this book you have reveiwed is her masterpiece. And Suddenly at His Residence is a very close runner-up in second place. You should read my article at the GA wiki. It previously appeared in two fanzines. I have no idea why Monica van Oostrom gave it a mere 3.5 out of 5. To me this is a 6!

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  2. John,

    I don't think I have ever come across someone who thinks this highly of "Suddenly at His Residence" ("The Crooked Wreath"). It's considered to be one of her weakest efforts, but I didn't think it was bad at all. Not that I would rank it along side Jezebel or Green, but the book definitely deserves a spot between "London Particular" and the modestly titled "Tour de Force."

    I guess most readers don't like it because they expect something more, from the writer of Green and Jezebel, than a clichéd-country house filled with a large family and a dead patriarch – murdered in a locked room before he could alter his will.

    And I will check out your article on the Wiki. :)

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  3. Personally, when I read "Suddenly at His Residence", I was at first delighted by what seemed like a parody of cliche mysteries, with a patriarch ready to alter his will at the drop of a hat. Unfortunately, once the crime was commmitted, the book plummetted downhill instantly, and it was nothing but routine accusations and false theories that kept piling up to the point where I didn't care anymore.

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  4. I don't think the accusations are routine at all. I also think the way that WW2 is used in the book (the air raid sirens, the blackouts, and the bombing in the final scene) has few matches in detective novel of the 1940s. Brand has admitted she wrote detective novels to entertain herself first and foremost. There is definitely an element of parody of detective ficiton conventions and tropes in the books I have read.

    I have yet to finish reading all of Brand. My estimation may change when I get to her later books.

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  6. ^
    Great to see your blog garner discussions such as these. Again a pleasant read Tomcat and consider me a follower from now on =P.

    If possible could you finish your article with a paragraph consisting of a small review or bunching the aforementioned pro's and con's paired with a score?

    Origami

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  7. Welcome aboard, Arman! :)

    Yes, I will keep that in mind for my next review.

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