Frame of Mind: "The Scapegoat" (1970) by Christianna Brand

Christianna Brand's "The Scapegoat" originally appeared in the August, 1970, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and the then editor-in-chief, Frederic Dannay, called Brand's late-period short stories and novellas renaissance detective fiction – half a century before renaissance detective fiction became a thing. But not everyone agrees. Jim, of The Invisible Event, discussed "The Scapegoat" in his review of Brand's short story collection A Buffet for Unwelcome Guests (1983) summed up his opinion about this story as follows, "hoover up every single word of this, and then vow never to repeat its abominations upon the world." So my take is going to be a game of gem or sham, on difficulty mode, because it's Brand story with Jim's opinion likely tipping the odds even further in her favor. Let's find out!

"The Scapegoat" is a combination of armchair detection and parlor psychology, which examines a fifteen year old, unsolved murder case haunting the son of a policeman.

Fifteen years previously, the crippled magician Mr. Mysterioso had been invited to place the cornerstone of the new wing of the local hospital and the police is present to safeguard the magicians. Mysterioso had received a flurry of angry, abusive and anonymous letters evidently from the same person ("they were all signed 'Her Husband'"). The magician is helped by his loyal servant, Tom, going up the steps to the platform in front of the cornerstone when the crack of a rifle shot is heard. Mysterioso and a dying Tom fall the ground. And, as Tom died in his arms, the magician defiantly roared at the building opposite, "you fools, you murderers, you've got the wrong man." A great, dramatic opening scene to an unsolved drama that continues to haunt the son of the policeman who was dismissed for negligence on duty.

In one of the top floor windows of the building, the police find a rifle propped up, "its sights aligned on the cornerstone," with one spent bullet and "nobody there." Up on the roof, directly above the window, a press photographer was making pictures of the charity event, but couldn't have come down as the police locked the door behind him for security reasons and down at the main entrance P.C. Robbins stood guard – seen by a dozen witnesses "tearing up the stairs toward the murder room." The large, open and easily searched building is searched from top to bottom without finding the assassin. So the young police constable is dismissed and that not only destroyed him, but is terribly close to destroying his son who believes his father didn't neglect his duty. And was unfairly dismissed. He also believes the press photographer, "Mr. Photoze," is the real killer and "wanted to be avenged on Mr. Photoze who had committed a crime and got off scot-free."

Mysterioso organizes a domestic court "to talk it all over, to try to excise the scar that had formed in the mind of the young man whose father had been dismissed from the force." Robbins is to represent his father, Mr. Photoze is in the dock with him to defend himself and Inspector Block ("who as a young constable had been on the scene of the crime") presents the evidence of the police. Mysterioso presides as judge and several witnesses from fifteen years ago serve as jury. Old Baily at Home.

If you know your classical detective fiction, the situation surrounding the shooting and murder of the magician's servant is open to multiple interpretations and false-solutions. Brand even goes so far as ending the story with a double-twist. So all good and fine, on paper, but Jim has a point that the story "feels like Brand consciously writing A Christianna Brand Story." Brand was going back to the well and the result certainly is not one of her best (locked room) mystery stories, however, calling it an abomination is putting it on a little thick. The problem with "The Scapegoat" is that it's simultaneously too long and not long enough. Brand came up with an ambitious premise and idea for a first-class detective story, but everything from the impossible shooting, the multiple interpretations and the characters themselves to the double-twist ending needed more room to develop in order to be truly convincing and effective – which it simply wasn't. Strangely enough, in spite of its short length, "The Scapegoat" feels like it was too long and dragged out in parts. So not at all a good or efficient use of the short story format, which came at the cost of the plotting-and storytelling clarity characterizing Brand's best work.

Something better could have been done with "The Scapegoat." Maybe it could have been trimmed down or expanded into a novel, but this just isn't it. It's still an ok-ish detective story, but, when measured against the standards of Brand's earlier work, it suddenly looks very mediocre.

Sorry for having to end this trio of Brand reviews on a sour note, but genuinely expected to find a really good impossible crime story in "The Scapegoat." I mean, what are the odds of Jim actually not being that far off the mark? It looked like a safe bet!

No comments:

Post a Comment