"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.