Suddenly at His Residence (1946) by Christianna Brand

The past ten years have been a deluge of reprints, translations and even some newer, classically-styled works that turned into a flood of Noah-like proportions ushering in the current period of rediscovery – a renaissance age I predicted in the late 2000s and again towards the end of 2014. Coincidentally, or exactly according to my prediction, the reprint renaissance really began to gain momentum in 2015 as more publishers and imprints appeared. The downside to this success that it's hard sometimes to keep pace with all the new releases. So, usually, I'm trailing behind the new reprints and releases, except this time.

Two months from now, the British Library Crime Classics is going to publish a reprint of Christianna Brand's third novel, Suddenly at His Residence (1946), which was published in the US as The Crooked Wreath and serialized in The Chicago Tribune under the title One of the Family. Suddenly at His Residence has been on the to-be-reread list for a while now. And not without a reason.

I wrote in my reviews of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and John Dickson Carr's The Three Coffins (1935) that the current reprint renaissance coincided with some very famous, time-honored classics having their status reevaluated and sometimes downgraded – which also went the other way round. For example, Carr's Till Death Do Us Part (1944) once had the profile of a decent, mid-tier title from the Dr. Gideon Fell series, but today, it's looked upon as one of Carr's finest detective novels. During the 2000s, Brand's Suddenly at His Residence tended to be dismissed as an inferior, mid-tier work dragged down by melodramatic sentimentality and not anywhere near the same league as Green for Danger (1944), Death of Jezebel (1948) and London Particular (1952). But that began to chance towards the end of the decade. Just compare Nick Fuller's 2001 and John Norris' 2011 reviews. Nowadays, Suddenly at His Residence is highly regarded and some even consider the book to be among the best impossible crime novels the genre has produced.

I've only read Suddenly at His Residence in a Dutch translation, ages ago, remember very little beside the spectacular, unforgettable ending and those final lines. So why not take a second look in anticipation of the British Library reprint to see if its recent status upgrade is justified.

Once upon a time, Sir Richard March was married to a ballerina, Serafita, who gave him three sons, but he also kept a mistress, Bella, with an illegitimate child in a bijou house at Yarmouth. Somewhat of an open secret. Serafita predicted she would die young and Sir Richard would bring Bella to the house where she would "listen to nothing but 'Serafita,' 'Serafita,' 'Serafita,' till she is sick of the very sound of my name," which is exactly what happened. Sir Richard turned Swanswater into a shrine to his first wife full of "ancestor worship and ballet-dancing and rose-wreaths and coloured gloves." But the family has changed since the days of Serafita. The three sons had been killed in the First World War, their wives were gone and only the grandchildren were left. You can say they form the typical, dysfunctional family that tend to inhabit these type of country house mysteries.

Philip Marsh, "returned from that heathen America where in his childhood his mother had taken him," to settle down into a promising medical practice with a wife, Ellen, and a newborn child. Only they have quickly grown apart as Philip began an affair with his cousin, Claire, who "insisted upon working in some dreadful newspaper office" and raised her grandfather's ire with her ideas about "independence and a career." Peta is the darling of Sir Richard and heir to his fortune, which the family lawyer, Stephen Garde, had fought for and won – "and in so doing, himself had lost." A quiet country lawyer does not secure "a hearty fortune" for a young lady and then ask her to marry him. Edward Treviss is their half-cousin and the only grandson of Sir Richard and Bella. Edward had lost his parents in a boating accident, which everyone assumed he had witnessed and discovered as a child he could exploit his assumed trauma ("the next time he was due for a spanking, therefore, he had put his little hand to his forehead and declared that it felt queer"). Something he continues to do as an 18-year-old to get attention and have people "express anxiety about him."

They are all coming down to Swanswater, two miles out of the small town of Heronsford, in Kent, to take part in the ceremony that Sir Richard always held on the anniversary of Serafita's death. It goes without saying they test their grandfather's patience and ends with him banging the table, "I'll cut you all out of my will, the whole ungrateful pack of you," instructs Stephen to draft a new will. Sir Richard also announces his intention, despite being in poor health, to spent the night alone in the lodge where Serafita had died. What you expect to happen is discovered next morning.

Apparently, Sir Richard died from over stimulation of his "dickey heart," but Philip concludes somebody killed him when he notices that Sir Richard's medication and a phial of strychnine missing from his bag. But how could someone have been possibly poisoned him? There were three, narrow paths running up through the rose beds to the lodge, "one to the back door, and one to the French window of the sitting-room," which were freshly sanded and smoothed over shortly after Sir Richard retreated into the lodge – two of the paths were innocent of footprints. The third path only showed Clair's footprints as she walked up the path with a breakfast tray and spotted Sir Richard's body sitting at his desk through the French window. Nobody could possibly have pushed a way through the roses without bringing "down a shower of petals." The doors and windows were all closed and locked. A pretty little puzzle!

Inspector Cockrill, "a dusty little old sparrow arrayed in a startlingly clean white panama hat," makes his third appearance, but largely acts as a spectator as he rolls cigarettes, observes and occasionally stirring the pot to keep everyone talking (“he liked to get his suspects talking”). So the focus remains firmly on the family and with a very good reason. Suddenly at His Residence pretty much plays out like one, very big and long family row during which various members accuse each other of murder complete with a false-solution to explain how they could have done it. Some of these false-solutions are not without ingenuity and form an impressive whole considering how many different possibilities Brand came up that needed to fit as many different characters as well as the unchanging facts of the murder. Outsiders also get in on the fun. A personal favorite comes during the inquest when one of the jurors proposes a false-solution, which barely holds up on a second glance, but his fellow jurors liked it so much, they brought in a verdict of murder against one of the family members. And that forced an arrest.

Fortunately, the body of the gruff, unlikable gardener, Brough, is found not long thereafter in the sitting room of the lodge with a poisonous needle in his arm. On the dusty tiles in the hallway, near his right hand, was written "I KILLED SIR R." Everything was "locked and sealed from the inside" and "there was no possible way of getting there except across the hall,” but “there were simply acres of untrodden dust between him and the door." So when evidence is found that pulls the rug from under the suicide theory, Cockrill suddenly has two impossible crimes on his hands and a family of whom one is now twice a murderer.

The strength of Suddenly at His Residence is not in the pair of no-footprints puzzles. Judging the book solely on the impossible crimes, the tricks are good enough with the second, dusty murder finding a clever new way to do that trick, but, by themselves, would hardly justify a classical status. Nor is the strength in the clues and red herrings or the who-and why. But the pure craftsmanship of the plot construction. And the pure showmanship in telling an otherwise fairly cliched country house mystery. What sets the well intended amateur apart from the masters is how much they'll allow the reader to know. An amateur closely guards clues and important information in fear of giving away too much, too early, while a master simply shows them or parades them around in front of the reader – hoping you either missed or misinterpreted those clues. What separates the masters from true legends like Brand, Carr and Christie is an unrivaled ability to rub the truth in your face or casually refer to an important clue and simultaneously pull the wool over your eyes. A talent that made lesser-known Carr and Christie novels, like Death in the Clouds (1935), The Crooked Hinge (1938), The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939) and Evil Under the Sun (1941), tower above the best works of their contemporaries. Brand had that talent as well and she went all in with it here. 

Suddenly at His Residence is already fairly clued to the point where you can call it immaculate with (HUGE SPOILER/ROT13) gur pevzr fprar orvat n fuevar gb n qrnq onyyrevan, ohg Oenaq gbbx vg n srj fgrcf shegure ol qrcvpgvat Pynver fgnaqvat “irel fgenvtug naq ybiryl” orarngu gur cbegenvg bs Frensvgn cbfvat ba cvax gbr-cbvagf nf fur snprq Pbpxevyy. Be abapunynagyl ersrerapvat gur inphhz pyrnare fgnaqvat va gur unyyjnl zbzragf nsgre gur frpbaq ivpgvz vf sbhaq. This kind of brazen confidence and command of the plot elevated everything from the impossible murders to the multiple, false-solutions to the solution and bombshell ending. An amazing, completely fair and acceptable dues ex machina plot-device to help resolve everything that happened at Swanswater and none of it would have landed without the sound structure erected underneath it all. A lesser writer and plotted would not have been able pull it off and raise an essentially thoroughly cliched detective story to something that can stand with the best from the best.

Only thing Suddenly at His Residence has going against itself is Brand wrote much better, superior detective novels and suspect its once poor reputation came from comparisons to London Particular. A painfully human detective story in which a tightly-knit, caring family construct false-solution to implicate themselves in order to protect the others. When you compare that to the family row here with relatives accusing each other of murder, even an excellently constructed and executed detective story like Suddenly at His Residence can appear cheap and gaudy. I'm sure the premise of a patriarch getting murdered after announcing he's going to change his will didn't do its reputation any favors at the time, which is why its recent reevaluation based solely on its own merits is more than deserved. I only wish I had an eye back then to see and appreciate how skillfully and audaciously everything had been put together, but those very skills is what makes the best detective stories stand up to a second read. Another thing Brand apparently has in common with Carr and Christie. So, cutting another long, rambling review short, Suddenly at His Residence is an excellent Golden Age mystery that comes highly recommended!

On a final, somewhat unrelated note: I got my hands all over a really obscure, long out-of-print, but supposedly very good, locked room mystery in even more obscure, never reprinted Dutch translation. So stay tuned!


  1. Admittedly, I don't like this one very much relatively. I don't like footprint mysteries, and I certainly don't like THIS particular solution to them, so that dampened my enjoyment a bit. While I agree it's otherwise an expertly plotted detective story it's CHRISTIANNA BRAND. She has, like, six better novels and short stories, so I'm happy to label this one a lesser Brand.

    1. You know my opinion on the no-footprints puzzle. They're the most difficult to pull-off and always admire a writer who manages to do one, let alone two, successfully without relying on one of the basic tricks. Yes, Suddenly at His Residence is to London Particular what Christie's Evil Under the Sun is to Death on the Nile. That makes it such a less when you realize those six better novels and short stories covers nearly all of her work.

  2. I recognize there are mixed views of this book, but it is one of the first two impossible crime novels I that I ever read (the other was Carr's The Judas Window). Years ago I had read almost all of Christie's naively unaware that a world of GAD authors and novels existed until I found these two.

    Suddenly at his Residence helped trigger my love for impossible crime fiction so if this British Library re-issue does the same with other new readers, we all benefit from the continued demand that will lead to more excellent re-prints. That is good for all of us.

    1. Ah, yes, I remember the wonder mixed with skepticism when learning Christie was not an isolated phenomenon. Dutch mystery writer Appie Baantjer was an isolated phenomenon and assumed the same applied to Christie. And that blindingly stupid hot take came from the same guy who would go on to correctly predict the current reprint renaissance. :)

      "...we all benefit from the continued demand that will lead to more excellent re-prints."

      Agreed! It's already astonishing to see what has been reprinted (and translated) over the past 10-12 years.

  3. I too have grown fonder of this book as the years go by. She lays on the melodrama quite thick, but it's purposeful and the running red herring of Edward's fugues is well done. Then ending is stunningly surreal. It reminds me of Roscoe.

    1. Brand sure knew how to pack a punch, one way or another, when it came to endings.