A Swarm of Villainy

"Rouse yourself, my friend, rouse yourself. And look – look where I am pointing. There on the bank, close by that tree root. See you, the wasps returning home, placid at the end of the day? In a little hour, there will be destruction, and they know it not."
- Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's "Wasps' Nest," from Poirot's Early Cases, 1974)
One of my first blog-posts was a review of a once rare and coveted locked room mystery, Death of Jezebel (1948), which came from the hands of a criminally underrated mystery novelist who deserves a place among the "Crime Queen" – namely the very talented Christianna Brand.

Brand was a late arrival on the scene, debuting with Death in High Heels (1941) during the Second World War, but I consider her to be on equal footing with Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr. She had a similar fondness for seemingly impossible situations as the latter and was as apt with the closed-circle of suspects as the former, e.g. Green for Danger (1944) and London Particular (1952).

However, in spite of my opinion of Brand, I seem to have grossly neglected her after that initial review, but began to crave good writing, interesting characterization and solid plotting after struggling through Mavis Doriel Hay's mind-numbingly boring The Santa Klaus Murder (1936) – which led me back to Brand. So I decided to treat myself to one of her collections of short stories: What Dread Hand? (1968). Because a single, novel-length detective story simply wasn't enough to wash away the bad taste the previous one had left behind. 

The first story from the collection is "The Hornets' Nest," perhaps better known under its original title, "Twist for Twist," which is a promise that’s delivered on in spades and shows Brand was in the same league as Christie!

It's an ingeniously complex story centering on the poisoning of Cyrus Caxton: a "horrid old man" who "had been horrid to his first wife" and "was quite evidently going to be horrid to his second" – who had been the late Mrs. Caxton's nurse. There were a number of men in her life willing to protect her, but were they willing enough to fool around with a tin of cyanide? Inspector Cockrill is at hand to straighten out the tangled, twisted mess and even constructs a false solution reminiscent of The Murder on the Orient Express (1934). One of the best stories from the collection!

"Aren't Our Police Wonderful?" is what's known in the genre as a "Hoist-On-Their-Own-Petard," in which a brother tries secure his inheritance by bumping off his brother and was inspired by "a case that happened a hundred years ago or more." However, as Mark Twain observed: history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes and that becomes the murderers undoing. A quick, fun story.

The third story from this collection, "The Merry-Go-Round," has something to offer to both readers of classical detective stories and modern crime stories: a recently widowed woman is being blackmailed with a collection of lurid photographs found in a private drawer at the office of her late husband. A revolver stashed away in his bedside drawer provides relief for his widow. However, the blackmail angle does not stop there, but simply continues from a different angle. I loved the wonderfully sardonic ending and wished more modern crime fiction were in this mold.

The titular "Blood Brothers" from the fourth story are named David and Jonathan, who are actually twins from a small village, but even the locals are unable to tell them apart, which is cleverly exploited when they in a hit-and-run that killed a child – setting the stage for a premeditated murder. Inspector Cockrill tries to piece everything together, but whether or not he was successful is debatable. A splendid demonstration how twins can be properly used in a fair-play detective story. Even when said story is structured as an inverted mystery.

"Dear Mr. Editor..." begins with a short letter from Christianna Brand to her editor, in which she apologizes for having been unable to provide him with a freshly written story for his anthology. However, Brand did include a copy of a document written by "a poor creature," who "was quite mad," and was addressed to her editor. It's a thriller-ish suspense story with a twist, but one most readers will probably spot well before the ending.

"The Rose" is a short-short story and a postscript reveals it as an early endeavor of the author, which kind of shows. A loving husband is planning to dispose of his wife by hoisting and shoving her from the balcony, but these seemingly perfect schemes seldom pan out as planned. You’ll probably guess it as well.

The following story, "Akin to Love," is an odd inclusion, because it combines the romance story with the ghost yarn, in which a young woman spends the night in a room haunted by the ghost of a young man – who had "joined one of the Hell Fire Clubs" and "sold his soul to the devil." The man had sinned against "womankind" and can only be set free if a woman forgave and loved him. Sort of like Beauty and The Beast, but not really my kind of stuff.

I wanted to enjoy "The Death of Don Juan," but ended up not caring for it: Vicomte Coqauvin, "Don Juan," is going to settle down and breaks up a pendant, known as the "Collar of Tears," to give all of his mistresses a diamond drop as a memento. The entire undertaking had "been a nightmare of threatened suicides," but the final woman on his list was angry enough to empty a pistol on him. A Duchess sets out to reassemble the pendant and by the end it's revealed she had an unexpected role in the murder. It's not a bad story and some will like it, but I'm not one of them.

The quality picks up again with "Double Cross," which is a story fans of classic Ellery Queen will appreciate: Sir Thomas Cross had been "an unaccommodating relative to his heirs" by living too long, spending too much money and extracting revenge for his murder with an "equally unaccommodating will" – condemning his three cousins and potential murderers to live together in the "gloomy glories of Halberd Hall." A failure to comply excluded the absentee from further interest in the estate and basically amounted to a Tontine scheme, which is at the heart of several short EQ stories and radio plays. The solution is a good play on the least-likely-suspect and most-likely-suspect gambit. I liked it.

"The Sins of the Father" is a pure horror story and is about sin-eaters, who "flourished in Wales" up "to the end of the seventeenth century," but might have been around as recent as a hundred years ago. They eat the sins of men and send the dead with a clean slate into the afterworld, but are treated abominably for taking "sins upon them" – being cast out for being "doomed for all eternity" and "heavy with the load of other men's transgressions." In this story a young sin-eater is called upon to relief a dead man of his sins and "eat from the breast of a corpse." It's not a mystery, but very intriguing nonetheless.

"After the Event" is one of the longer stories from the collection, in which the "Grand Old Man of Detection" gives an expose of the Othello case. A case in which he collared the murderer by building up "a water-tight case against him" and "triumphantly brought to trial," but the jury failed to convict. However, Inspector Cockrill is present as well and found himself in "the position of the small boy at a party who knows how the conjurer does his tricks," which the observant and seasoned armchair detective can largely follow. And that's the most attractive part of this elaborate and theatrical story: rival detectives butting heads.

Note: I'm refraining from giving any details about the Othello case, because it really is an elaborate story. Read if for yourself.

"Death of a Ghost" is a story-within-story: a family secret is being divulged about a cousin who took deadly tumble down a flight of stairs and the ghost of a "Wicked Earl" from the eighteenth-century, which are closely tied-together. I kind of liked the story except for the feeling more could've been done with it.

"The Kite" is another minor, stand-alone story, but one I did not care about or remember anything about it. Skippable at best.

"Hic Jacet..." is another inverted mystery playing on the "Hoist-On-Their-Own-Petard," in which Mr. Fletcher-Store is plotting the murder of his wife by drowning, but his plan horrendously backfired and the R.A.F. jacket he purchased in the pub is part to blame. I really enjoy these type of stories, but I rare come across them and only found a small selection of them in two collection of short stories: Murderous Schemes: An Anthology of Classic Detective Stories (1998), which has a selection of such stories containing the brilliant "The Possibility of Evil" by Shirley Jackson, and Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek (2008), which has the amusing "You Have a Friend at Fengrove National."

Finally, there's "Murder Game," which is better known among locked room enthusiasts as "The Gemminy Cricket Case," and has an impossible crime plot as complicated as it's classical.

It's another one of those story-within-a-story structured story, in which Giles Carberry tells "the old man" about the Gemminy case. Thomas Gemminy is a London-based solicitor "dealing largely in criminal cases," but was "kind and compassionate" with a trust fund for those "who had passed through his hand" and "might turn for help in time of need." His home had also been open to the pitiful children who usually had no idea what their parents had been up to. So not really your typical story-book victim, but Gemminy is brutally murdered inside his office: tied to a chair with a cord and handkerchief knotted tightly around his neck, but the finishing blow came from knife-thrust between the shoulder blades – and the wound was still bleeding when the door was broken down. A door that was locked and bolted from the inside. On top of that, the office was set on fire and the victim was heard screaming something "vanishing into thin air" and "the long arms."

It's an extremely knotty, twisted affair and the solution is clever, but, it has to be said, a composite of some time-honored tricks. However, Brand found a way to twist it in a new direction and came up with a logical and clever answer why the second victim suffered a similar fate as the bleeding heart lawyer. But the best part is the final revelation, which makes this a very, very dark story and explained where the murderer found the guts for such to pull off such a locked room trick.

Well, that were the tales murder and horror collected in What Dread Hand? and, hopefully, I have done them some measure justice, because I enjoyed the vast majority of them and were exactly what I needed after the previous disappointment.

So, if you've never read Christianna Brand before, I have only thing to say to you: stop being a filthy heretic and find a copy of Green for Danger!


  1. Thanks for the review, especially since I tend to shy away from short-story collections: my volume of Ellery Queen's first set of adventures is collecting dust on the shelf...

    I like Christianna Brand very much, and agree that she would be a worthier candidate for the crown than Ngaio Marsh would, on the strength of 'Green for Danger' and 'Death of Jezebel'. These two titles can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with some of Agatha Christie's stronger, if not strongest, works. 'Tour De Force' and 'Crooked Wreath' boast of strong puzzles, but are not quite in the same league. The mystery for 'London Particular' wasn't as good, but showcased significant human interest.

    I think the problem is that Brand simply didn't write enough to be in the running, which is a real shame. With respect to her full-length novels, I'm only left with 'Heads You Lose', which hasn't garnered glowing reviews. Looks like I might have to check out this short-story collection...

    1. It's logically to assume Brand's small pool of novels and short story collections is what prevented her from claiming the crown, but Josephine Tey was even less prolific and she's regarded by many as one of the Crime Queens. Did she even write something on par with Green for Danger, Death of Jezebel, Tour de Force or London Particular? So I'd say Brand was unjustly ignored as a potential Crime Queen. The same goes for Gladys Mitchell.

      Heads, You Lose is not very strong, I’m afraid. Luckily, I still have Death in High Heels, Three-Cornered Halo and some short story collections to go. There are apparently some standalones I have to look into (e.g. Cat and Mouse).

    2. I haven't read 'Death in High Heels', but the few reviews I've come across don't seem to rate it any higher than 'Heads You Lose'... Rather frustratingly, my local Amazon doesn't seem to stock the Mysterious Press digital versions of Brand's works anymore.

      Unless we're sticking to the UK, Helen McCloy should be considered in the running as a possible Crime Queen. Though much of her later output veered towards thriller rather than mystery; I gather the same can be said for some of Brand's later novels.

      I haven't tried anything by Gladys Mitchell - where would be a good place to start?

    3. Gladys Mitchell is an acquired taste and not always the purest of detective writers, but for sheer imagination and originality she's hard to beat - especially her earlier to middle period.

      I'd recommend starting with some of her more traditional novels such as The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop, The Saltmarsh Murders, St. Peter's Finger and When Last I Died.

      However, if you want something out of the ordinary, I recommend Come Away, Death, which is a personal favorite of mine. The Rising of the Moon is completely off the beaten track, but don't start with it and the ending leaves some questions open.

      By the way, I should return to Mitchell myself, because the last review was from 2012. I'm kind of curious about Death of Delft Blue and has her series detective tramping around my country, but it's reportedly from her boring period and a travelogue at best.

      Helen McCloy is an honorary Crime Queen.

    4. Gladys Mitchell is a taste I haven't managed to acquire. I'm afraid I detest Mrs Bradley! An awful woman.

  2. A while back I read Brand's Buffet for Unwelcome Guests, which was an excellent short story collection. A couple of the stories are also collected in this short story collection, it appears. I gave up on writing a review though, as there was just too much I wanted to write about per story! Definitely recommended reading if you haven't already.

    1. You gave up on writing a review, because there was too much to talk about? I never considered that an option!

      Anyhow, Buffet for Unwelcome Guests and Brand X are collections with high marks on my wish list, which reportedly have both a strong and original impossible crime story. Not that that's the only reason for getting them... but it certainly helps.

  3. Just to say if you like collections of golden age inverted crime short stories you may enjoy department of dead ends by roy Vickers if you haven't read it already

    1. I've read that one, but did not like it. Not a fan of Vickers, I'm afraid.

  4. Thanks for the really detailed review TC - I do like Brand (especially GREEN FOR DANGER) but haven't got this yet, so as long as I can get a ppaper copy ... cheers mate!

  5. Brand was an excellent short story writer and I agree this is a really good collection. Of her novels, my favourite, by a distance, is Green for Danger.

    1. Agreed. Green for Danger has a nearly perfect overall score, but, personally, I'm also very fond of Death of Jezebel and London Particular. All three of them should be widely read among mystery fans.

  6. I've read very little of Brand's work but GREEN FOR DANGER is a minor classic. Maybe even a major classic.