RogerBW's Blog

Heads You Lose, Christianna Brand 22 December 2016

1941 detective fiction; second of Brand's novels, and first to feature Inspector Cockrill. A visitor to a country house says "I wouldn't be seen dead in a ditch in a [hat] like that"… and is soon proved wrong. The next night another woman is murdered.

While this has the conventional form of the country house mystery, it's definitely a book set in early wartime: blackouts are mentioned, one of the young men is on leave from the Army, it's rather implied that the reason for this house-party is a flight from London by those who can afford it, and there's a pervasive sense that the good times are now over.

He was under the guardianship of his uncle, a stern old man who had kept a careful eye upon his nephew's more or less blameless activities, until the first threat of war had sent him scuttling off to America; and much good that had done him, thought Grace with self-satisfied irony, for only yesterday she had seen his obituary notices in the papers.

This is also an interestingly transitional book, mid-way between the almost entirely hateful cast of Death in High Heels and the mixed bunch of Green for Danger: yes, they're mostly pretty horrible here, but they do have at least some redeeming features. Cockrill, based on Brand's father-in-law, is a more interesting person than Charlesworth, though he's present primarily to give hints to the reader; views of his actual process of deduction are confined to the final explanation.

In theory this is a book about timing and who was where when, in particular how the second body could have been left where it was with no footprints in the snow around it (a retired trapeze-artist is among the suspects). In practice there are webs of jealousy and desire among the Squire and his guests that leave several people potentially in the frame.

"I suppose you wouldn't understand, not having been in love yourself but only having had people in love with you, how dreadful it is to sort of ache with love for anybody who just comfortably loves you back."

There are also secrets and deceptions, and some sheer obliviousness (especially by the Squire, who seems to be thoroughly lusted after for reasons that never become clear).

"I observed for the first time, to-day, that our Pen has got his eye on you; and in case you should make up your mind too quickly in his favour, I thought I'd better so far abuse his hospitality as to inform you that I also am in the running. I don't know if you knew. Have a cocktail?"

The limited suspect pool is announced in the list of characters, but it's well-handled inside the story: any maniac might have come in from outside to kill the first victim, but only the people at the house-party had heard her remark about the hat or knew where it was being kept.

So that at half-past ten Fran yawned prodigiously and announced that it was terribly late, and she thought they all ought to go to bed. As her present passion for Vingt-et-un usually kept them up till the early hours of the morning, this declaration was received with astonishment, not unmingled with relief.

Some of the red herrings are pretty heavy-handed, but more seriously there's an air of nastiness through the book, which goes further than the desperate attempts to hold on to normality and a way of life that are disappearing forever. One can hold one's nose and cope with derogatory comments about "the Jews" (one of the young women has married one), which are at least put in the mouths of the characters rather than the narrator, though there's no sense that those characters are meant to be regarded as unlikeable; less so "there was an air of chic about her, but all the washing in the world could not make her look quite clean", or indeed:

The evacuees had not been so thrilled since a bomb had fallen two doors away, at home, in dear old Whitechapel.

Unfortunately the book is completely let down for me by the resolution of the murder, one of my least favourite detective-story tricks: bar bs gur fhfcrpgf gheaf bhg gb unir orra znq, naq gb unir xvyyrq jvgubhg pbafpvbhf njnerarff bs gur npg. But apart from that it's rather jolly in a ghastly sort of way.

Followed by Green for Danger.

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