Shadowed Sunlight (1945) by Christianna Brand

Last time, I discussed Christianna Brand's Death in High Heels (1941), very much an apprentice work full with undeveloped potential and promise, but for a detective story from the forties, it has aged remarkably well – closer a police procedural from the 1980s or '90s than a Golden Age mystery. So even when she's not pulling a Carr or Christie, Brand's can deliver a detective story not devoid of merit of interest. However, it didn't quite scratch that itch and decided to go right back to Brand. And with good reason.

I rambled on about lost manuscripts and other extraordinarily obscure detective fiction not so long ago, but what I neglected to mention in those laments is that efforts are being made to salvage what has been lost. In the past, I recounted Philip Harbottle's Herculean labors to restore the works of John Russell Fearn and Gerald Verner to print, which include some superb, previously unpublished, novels (e.g. Fearn's Pattern of Murder, 2006). Three years ago, the British Library published E.C.R. Lorac's Two-Way Murder (c. 1958), originally written shortly before she died, but not published until 2021. Then there's Tony Medawar's Bodies from the Library anthology series dedicated to "bring into the daylight the forgotten, the lost and the unknown" from the Golden Age of Detection.

An annual series collecting obscure, rarely reprinted short stories, previously unpublished work and even plays from a who's who of classic mystery writers – covering both American and British writers. So you get rare or unpublished stories from the likes of Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Boucher and Clayton Rawson. The Bodies from the Library series has proven to be a small treasure trove of previous unpublished work for fans of Christianna Brand. A big regret of her fans is that "she didn't write enough," but "new" material has been added in recent years to Brand's bibliography.

"Cyanide in the Sun" (1958) and "Bank Holiday Murder" (19??) had not been reprinted since their original appearance in The Daily Sketch ("a British newspaper which folded fifty years ago"), but respectively reprinted in The Realm of the Impossible (2017) and the Sept/Oct, 2017, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The never before published "The Rum Punch" appeared in the first Bodies from the Library (2018) anthology ("the highlight of the collection and an impossible mystery at that") and Bodies from the Library 4 (2021) contains an entire, long overlooked and nearly forgotten (short-ish) novel! There's still that planned Crippen & Landru collection (The Dead Hold Fast and Other Stories) and the unpublished impossible crime novel The Chinese Puzzle. Someone, like James Scott Byrnside, could complete the unfinished Cat Among the Pigeons. Anyway...

The subject of today's review is Shadowed Sunlight, originally serialized in Woman from July to August 1945, but was somehow forgotten about until it returned to print in Bodies from the Libraries 4. I don't remember ever hearing or reading about Shadowed Sunlight, before it was finally reprinted a few years ago. I was aware the unpublished The Chinese Puzzle and "The Dead Hold Fast," but never noticed even the briefest of mentions of this small, typical Brandian gem completely with a tight-drawn cast of characters and a seemingly impossible murder – only Cockrill and Charlesworth are absent. More on that in a moment.

Shadowed Sunlight takes place as the Second World War came to an end and "it was 'Britain is Grateful Week' for returning heroes," which means charity events to collect donations, war bonds and to welcome back the boys. Edgar "Thom-Thom" Thom is a successful ex-businessman who had his retirement cut short by the war to serve his country, as Director of Anthracite Production, but now intends to combine charity work with pleasure. Thom has taken his beloved racing cutter Cariad out of storage to "give those kids up at the naval school a run for their money" and to collect some money for the savings campaign. So brings together a small group of friends and young people to celebrate and enjoy the sailing.

Firstly, there's Gloria and her second husband, Geoffrey Winson, and their 7-year-old daughter, Charlotte, who's simply called "Tiggy." Jenny Sendall is Gloria's 19-year-old daughter from her first marriage. She brought along her boyfriend, Roy Silver, who's the "Silver Voice of Radio." Tiggy is looked after by the overworked, underpaid nursemaid, Miss Pye. She's not always on the best of term with her employers. Truda Dean and her boyfriend, Julian Messenger, get invited on their way to Trudy's grandmother, Lady Audian, to tell her of their intention to get married. Lastly, there's Thom's personal secretary, Evan Stone, who helped to arrange the boating party. But then things begin to get awkward really fast.

Julian Messenger used to be engaged to Jenny Sendall, but, when returning home from war, Julian asked Jenny to release him from his promise to marry her – because he wanted to marry Trudy. Jenny agreed to his request, "she was awfully sweet and nice about breaking off our engagement," but not her cash-strapped parents. Gloria and Geoffrey learn about this right before a day before the boating party. So they force her to promise to take action against Julian for breach of promise. Things don't end there. A day before the race, the group attends Miss Templeton's dance party ending with the mysterious theft of their host's emerald pendant in platinum setting. An ill-omen, indeed, but nothing compared to what awaits them the next day.

Midday, the next day, they have a picnic aboard, "just a rough, homely picnic," where everyone handles, eats and drinks the same things, but only one of them dies from cyanide poisoning. Somehow, or other, the murderer had poisoned something the victim ate or drink, mere minutes before, which appears to be an utter impossibility. Nobody could have administered the poison. An impossible poisoning aboard a racing yacht with a small, intimate circle of potential suspects.

I mentioned in the review of Death in High Heels that the book ends with Charlesworth getting assigned to a new case, "a murder in a racing yacht," wondering whether it could be the story told in the so far unpublished novella The Dead Hold Fast. Well, Shadowed Sunlight certainly ticks the murder-in-a-racing-yacht box, but Charlesworth is not the one who Scotland Yard sends to clear up the murder. Detective Inspector Dickinson, "a university pup with very little experience," because "a straightforward poisoning in a yacht, where, of necessity, the suspects must be few and the solution merely a matter of motive and opportunity, had seemed, to the simple hearts of his superiors, a cinch" – putting him on his first solo case. However, the murder proves far from straightforward from the apparent impossibility of administrating the poison, a mass drugging on the previous evening and stolen poison to the theft of the emerald and the death of Gloria's first husband. All tied up in a complicated tangle of relationships, emotions and possible motives with Tiggy both helping and hampering Dickinson's investigation. I agree with Jim when he said Tiggy can be added "alongside the Carstairs clan to the pantheon of Perfectly Realised Young People in GAD fiction." The characters, their interactions and complicated relationships really is the story's strong point.

Shadowed Sunlight is very much a character-driven mystery novel in the tradition of the Golden Age Crime Queen with twisty, psychological touches rather than a John Dickson Carr-style impossible crime tale. Brand's skillful hand at measuring out emotions is on full display, which she always beautifully balanced and seldom done in shades of a single color. For example (Minor SPOILERS/ROT13), gur Jvafbaf ner gehyl n cnve bs ercryyrag punenpgref, ohg Gvttl frrvat ure sngure nyy bs n fhqqra qvr sebz cbvfbavat naq pelvat bhg (“qnqql, jnxr hc, jnxr hc—!”) znxrf vg ernyyl harnfl gb purre fbzrbar ba jub, ol gur raq, vf cebira gb or bar bs gubfr qrfreivat ivpgvzf bs qrgrpgvir svpgvba. Be gur jrqtr bs fhfcvpvba guerngravat gb qevir n, huz, jrqtr orgjrra Whyvna naq Gehql.

Brand wasn't half-bad when it came to creating an engaging set of characters and knew how to insert genuine drama or an emotional monkey into a detective story without turning it into a cheap, gaudy melodrama. She often knew how to exploit it to deliver an emotional gut punch ending that made genre classics out of so many of her novels. Shadowed Sunlight certainly has a somewhat mixed ending, where the fates of the characters are concerned and you can't help feeling a little sorry for the murderer, but not the wrenching conclusion of a Green for Danger (1944) or London Particular (1952). However, it would be a unfair to hold this shorter, originally serialized and character-driven, novel up against those towering examples of Golden Age ingenuity and plotting. Brand evidently intended Shadowed Sunlight to be on a lighter note than something like Green for Danger and is to Brand's work what Peril at End House (1932) is to Christie. An excellent detective novel in its own right, but one that will always be overshadowed by its author's even better and more popular works.

So what about the actual meat of the plot? And, more specifically, the impossible poisoning? The plot is lighter and more character-oriented than Brand's other novels, but, on a whole, not bad with the only disappointing plot-thread being the stolen emerald pendant. I figured that part out pretty quickly and not up to Brand usual standards, but everything else was simply solid. Particularly the neat poisoning-trick that explained the impossible murder. I have come to associate this kind of impossible poisoning and solution with Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed series, which often feature similar impossibly poisoned food/drink in public/open places. So coming across one every now and then in a Golden Age detective story only adds interest. If there's anything to complain about is that Shadowed Sunlight was reprinted as part of an anthology instead of published as a separate novel. It would need a lengthy introduction, bibliography and extra short story ("Cyanide in the Sun") to pad out the page-count, but a “new” Brand novel deserves nothing less, especially when it's as good as Shadowed Sunlight.

Cutting this long, rambling and quasi-coherent shitty scribbling short, I really, really enjoyed Shadowed Sunlight. It was exactly what I was hoping to find when I picked up Death in High Heels: a lighter-plotted, but still unmistakably, Brandian detective story. While the story nor characters and plot soared to the same heights as Green for Danger or London Particular, it's restoration to print is cause for celebration. The fulfillment of a seemingly impossible wish of seeing Brand's all-too-small body of work miraculously expand. I suspect James got hold of a Monkey's Paw. Next up is probably going to be a review of one of Brand's short stories to complete the hat trick.


  1. I'm far from the only Brand fanatic out there. I'm sure a few of them have interest in the dark arts. Incidentally, I got to do a small bit of research for Tony a couple years ago. He asked me to track down some unpublished Sayers stories (featuring Wimsey) at a nearby college. Alas, I was not successful. One (Beyond the Reach of the Law) turned out to be an early version of "The Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker" and the other was a Ulysses-like stream of conciousness piece that had nothing to do with Wimsey or detection. I had trouble making heads or tails of it, but I'm sure it was an early version of something. Even without the thrill of discovering a new story, it was fun doing research.

    1. Pity your treasure hunt was a dud, but the chase is often more fun than the catch. Truly great catches tend to be serendipitous, anyway.

      "I'm far from the only Brand fanatic out there. I'm sure a few of them have interest in the dark arts."

      The horror genre has the Cult of Cthulhu and we have the Coven of Brand.

  2. You mention Inspector Cockrill and Inspector Charlesworth as recurrent characters in Brsnd's novels. Curiously, there is a third character, Inspector Chucky, who appears in two novels. I say curiously because he appears in Cat & Mouse and also in a novel from the seventies, A Ring of Roses, published under a pseudonym, Mary Anne Ashe. I find this a surprise because this tale is a typical Brand mystery, with many twists and turns and false solutions. Actually, I think this one is far better than the last Charleswoth appearance, The Rose in Darkness. I don't know why she wrote this one under a pseudonym. As a consequence, unfortunately, it has not been reprinted recently (it's only available in an italian translation).

    1. Yes, I've read about Inspector Chucky and A Ring of Roses being a small, overlooked gem from Brand's oeuvre. A reprint under her own name would add another "new" Brand novel to the list as some of these recently rediscovered, late-period novels used to be dismissed as none-mysteries or only having mysterious elements. So they were never widely seeked out by Brand/mystery fans.