Death in High Heels (1941) by Christianna Brand

Last month, I revisited Christianna Brand's pièce de résistance, Green for Danger (1944), which is set in a World War II hospital under cover of the Blitz and considered not only to be her crowning achievement, but one of the dozen best Golden Age detective novels – a five-star whodunit genuinely worthy of Agatha Christie. Green for Danger more than stood up to a second reading and wanted to return to Brand sooner rather than later. I considered taking another look at Heads, You Lose (1941), Death of Jezebel (1948) or London Particular (1952), but opted for one of the titles on the to-be-read pile. There were still some interesting titles left to pick, Cat and Mouse (1950) or The Rose in Darkness (1979), but decided to go with Brand's debut novel.

Death in High Heels (1941) takes place in a posh dress shop, Christophe et Cie, where we find the small, tightly-drawn cast of characters comprising of a dozen women and two men.

The two men are Frank Bevan, proprietor and manager, and his dress designer, Mr. Cecil. Miss Gregory and Miss Doon act as Bevan's right and left hand in running the dress shop with "Macaroni" ("so christened for reasons obscure enough in the beginning but now lost in the mists of time") doing secretarial duties for Miss Doon. Mrs. Irene Best, Mrs. Rachel Gay and Mrs. Victoria David were the sales staff at Christophe et Cie, while the two mannequins Miss Carol and Miss Wheeler "just walk around in the models and show the customers what they are going to look like in the dresses" – "perhaps." Lastly, Mrs. 'Arris, the charlady. If you know your Brand, you know there's a cat among the pigeons who's about to strike. Even though the opening chapters show little more than the daily routine with its petty work floor rivalries and romances. Only thing somewhat outside the daily routine is Rachel and Victoria dashing off to the chemist for oxalic acid to clean a straw hat, which ends up all over the shop. Miss Doon dies that night in hospital from the effects of corrosive poisoning, but was it an accident, suicide or perhaps an opportunistic murder?

Suspecting "something fishy" about Miss Doon's death, Inspector Charlesworth and Sergeant Bedd are dispatched to the dress shop to sort it out. Charlesworth is able to rule out an accident or suicide, boiling the list of potential suspects down to the people in the dress shop and "gone a long way towards establishing motives." However, the investigation eventually grinds to a halt and Charlesworth's superior decides to assign his long-time rival, Inspector Smithers, as a co-investigator to help him out ("...unaware of the mutual detestation between these young men"). That's not only complication as there's a second poisoning attempt, a hunt for a potential trunk murderer and Charlesworth falling in love with one of his primary suspects.

Death in High Heels possesses nearly all the ingredients of a classic Brand mystery, except for Inspector Cockrill and some kind of impossible crime, but the book is very much an apprentice work – similar to Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1916/20). They're promising first stabs bubbling with promise and playing with certain ideas that would be worked out and take on more definite shapes in their later works. Same holds true for Death in High Heels and particularly in the way she draws a small, tightly-knit cast of characters, but in every other way it's an a-typical Brand novel showing she had not found her footing in her first novel. Most notably, the ending lacks that emotional gut punch characterizing so many of best detective novels like Green for Danger and London Particular. One of Brand's many strengths as both a writer and plotter is that she knew how to effectively end a story. Something she would not get a hang of until several years later with her superb WWII whodunit, which proved to be the first in a string of Golden Age classics.

While her apprentice detective novel is a sound, competently plotted affair with a well-realized setting, Death in High Heels is obviously not one of Brand's greatest triumphs. It simply doesn't measure up to Brand's later work. That being said, Death in High Heels has a quality all of its own that makes it stand out even as one of Brand's lesser novels.

Death in High Heels reads like a British police procedural published in the 1980s or '90s instead of a Golden Age detective story from the '40s. On the GADWiki, Curt Evans notes "the dumb stereotype of British Golden mystery certainly is belied by Brand's first novel" with its "light badinage about sex" ("the ladies are breezily and pleasantly irreverent on this subject") and the gay Mr. Cecil – whose missing boyfriend is one of the story's subplots. Another interesting scene, for the time, is when Brand's shows one of the woman going through an ugly divorce with a child caught in the middle ("...he was unkind and unfriendly to Mummy so he couldn't be your Daddy any more") or Charlesworth going to the morgue to look over the sewed up corpse of Miss Doon. Not to mention Charlesworth being everything but your typical Golden Age detective. Smart and competent enough, but no Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, who's prone to falling in love at the drop of a dime ("Mr. Charlesworth's susceptible heart did three somersaults and landed at Victoria's feet") and a big fan of himself. And that can make him a bit of a dick at times. So more in line with the imperfect characters of the modern police procedural than the Great Detectives who were still around in the '40s.

All done very openly without an attempt to doll it all up and make it presentable to a 1940s audience, which must have raised some eyebrows at the time. A daring approach for the time and Brand returned to her own period in succeeding novels, which adhered more to conventions of the time (e.g. Suddenly at His Residence, 1946). Like she remembered it was 1941, not 1981 or 1991, which is why she wisely relegated Charlesworth to the ranks of secondary/supporting character in favor of Inspector Cockrill. A much better series-character to carry her novels and short stories.

So, while Death on High Heels is far from Brand's best detective novel, it has aged remarkably well to the point where it feels like it was published only thirty, forty years ago – instead of more than eighty years. It speaks volumes how good Brand really was when even her weakest detective novel has something to make it noteworthy simply as Golden Age mystery. She truly was one of the very best!

On a final, somewhat related note: Death in High Heels ends with Charlesworth getting assigned to a new case, "a murder in a racing yacht" ("...sounds rich and glamorous, sir"), which just might possibly be the case told in the unpublished Charlesworth novella The Dead Hold Fast. I'm still waiting for The Dead Hold Fast and Other Stories, C&L!


  1. Love this setting and the story.

  2. I keep meaning to do a reread of Brand. From memory, this is superior to the follow up. The petty bitchiness of the characters was entertaining and it was obvious Brand was having fun exorcising the demons that lingered from her (very real) days working retail with insufferable colleagues. Charlesworth isn't a great detective but that's part of his charm. It also helps when he's struggling with a case, because you get the sense that he's actually struggling. When the great detectives struggle, it sometimes seems like an author forcing it.

    1. It also makes Charlesworth the perfect vehicle to deliver false-solutions or act as the fallible rival detective, which is one reason I want to reread Death of Jezebel and London Particular. You definitely want to check back for Friday's scheduled review.

  3. I liked this one more than I thought given it was alleged a middling Brand. It is noteworthy that middling Brand is still better than many GAD authors. I still live in hope that Brand’s The Chinese Puzzle will be published (a locked room murder during a seance in the dark is exactly my kind of book).

    1. Hope?! At this point, I'm prepared to take hostages to get The Chinese Puzzle published. :D