RogerBW's Blog

Suddenly at His Residence, Christianna Brand 07 March 2017

1946 detective fiction; third of Brand's novels of Inspector Cockrill. Sir Richard's grandchildren visit his country house in the summer of 1944 as flying-bombs descend on London; he decides to disinherit them all, goes to spend the night in the lodge dedicated to the memory of his deceased first wife, and is found dead in the morning. US vt The Crooked Wreath.

So we have Philip, the doctor, married to Ellen and with a baby, but having an affair with his cousin Claire, the journalist; we have Peta, the VAD nurse and heir-presumptive, in love with the family solicitor but made so nervous by his presence that she plays up idiotically; we have Edward, grandson of Sir Richard's second wife, who was always "delicate" but now spends his time seeing psychiatrists and pretending to be decorously mad to get attention. Then there's Bella, said second wife (and former mistress), and the Broughs, all that's left of the garden staff now that the war's taken all the younger men.

They're all, frankly, a pretty hateful bunch. Peta's probably the most sympathetic, but they each have their moments of horrible-ness. Even the house is ghastly.

It had been a beautiful house in its day and the hall and principal rooms still wore the distinction of their Georgian elegance; but it had been much added to, and on either side of its plain brick front sprawled whole wings of glass-houses, squash-courts, orangeries and a swimming bath, with a nightmare of marble terraces and balconies. […] Serafita's influence had clotted the grounds with little bowers and temples, each quite charming in itself, but utterly ruining the character of the park; and on either side of the gates stood two of them, highly ornamental lodges in pseudo-Grecian style. In one of these tiny houses lived Brough, the gardener and his wife; and in the other, Serafita had died.

As for the plot, one suspects that Brand was trying to pep things up a bit: the first murder is constrained in time by Brough's sanding of the paths to the lodge where Sir Richard was spending the night, since they're free of footprints in the morning, and the second is a locked-room mystery. This works, but as usual it's mostly a novel of character and motivation.

"[…] they've had a rotten time up in London for the past few weeks with the flying-bombs and all that. I mean, it's enough to make them all a bit edgy—you must make allowances," said Stephen, as steady as a rock after the "rough time" in Normandy.

Cockrill himself mostly sits back and observes, occasionally tossing in a brand to get the family to flare up at each other; partly that's his style anyway, but partly I think he's frustrated that they just won't take anything seriously. (Maybe I'm reading too much into it; I was similarly frustrated.)

Grandfather was dead, who had been so splendid in his benevolent autocracy; and all his family could think about was who had killed him and why and by what means. The world had gone mad about them, there was no longer any room for ordinary grief and tenderness, remorse and regret. Grandfather dead, was forgotten in Sir Richard March, murdered. It was an arid and terrible thing to have no room left for sorrow.

While everyone has at least occasional sympathy about them, there are one or two lovely extremes of narratorial bitchiness.

Ellen […] thought with deep bitterness that it was just like Claire to come in, cool and beautiful, from the garden, looking all soulful, and sweep Philip away from the horridness and drudgery which she, Ellen, had rightly kept him to; thus deliberately drawing attention to her own crumpled hot yellow linen, and the hardness of her heart. In this she did an injustice to Claire who looked only inwards and reflected very little upon the effect of her dealings on other people.

The ending is a strange one: there's something approximating a traditional revelation, but it's interrupted by a flying-bomb hitting the house, followed by an unexpected action sequence. This does its job in making sure the murderer is safely dead (and Cockrill makes sure that nobody gets too sentimental about the killer), but it's a wrenching change of pace into a thriller rather than a mystery. It doesn't quite work to cap off the story, but it does a very good job of pointing out that the old conventions just don't apply any more.

"Time for a glass of sherry," said Sir Richard, with the naïve pride of one who in 1944 still has Amontillado to offer.

Followed by Death of Jezebel.

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