RogerBW's Blog

The Rose in Darkness, Christianna Brand 10 January 2018

1979 detective fiction; fourth and last of Brand's novels of Inspector Charlesworth. On a stormy night, faded film star Sari Morne finds her road blocked by a fallen tree; but a stranger has just arrived at the other side, and they swap cars to finish their journeys. But the next morning the car in her garage has a corpse in it.

She had been out in the storm. The rain had run off the shiny surface of the plastic mac, but the mac was smeared with mud; shoes, woollen gloves, even the horrid matching little woollen cap, all thick with still damp mud.

That "horrid" is the key to this book. It's nominally a murder mystery, but in practice it's much more an examination of manners and style. It feels like an artefact of the 1950s much more than of its publication date, for all there's some mention of Habitat (unfavourable, naturally). (It's regarded as notable and unusual that people in Sari's group of friends don't care whether someone's housekeeper might also be his mistress.) Everyone hates everyone else, and Sari's circle of Eight Best Friends are all horrible people in their particular ways. So is Inspector Charlesworth, now a Chief Superintendent and married, though that still doesn't stop him falling in love with the prettiest suspect in the room. So, even, is his long-suffering sergeant, for all Brand does her best to write him sympathetically and mostly succeeds.

"Flogging up his studies in the medical library. The attendants won't account for him, they say three-quarters of the students there were coloured, which to them means indistinguishable from one another."

"They do put their hearts into it, these black chaps, don't they?" said Charlesworth. "You've got to respect them."

"Yessir," said the sergeant, who respected them anyway.

One starts to wish that they could all be guilty (but we're told up front that "there is no collusion as to this murder"), so that they could all be hanged and good riddance to them, and never mind that capital punishment was effectively abolished in Great Britain in 1965.

Mr Harte was twice the age and three times the girth of Mrs Harte and had fairly evidently been chosen entirely for his ability to provide expensive sports cars and pedigree poodles; other attributes must be looked for elsewhere and had doubtless been discovered in Mr Phineas Devigne.

Brand has liked to make occasional fun of pronunciation in her earlier books, but this one is full of "chicking sangwidge" and "verimisilitude". Clearly we're meant to feel superior to such people. I've sometimes been prone to such feelings myself. This book is a good cure for them.

Brand does her usual fine technical job of keeping all the candidates for murderer at least somewhat plausible until the last moment, as various false statements are found out. We spend very little time with the police; mostly the narrative stays with Sari and her friends as they speculate about the murder and conduct their variously tawdry lives.

Fellers were money for jam, thought Sari, compared with trying to enchant small girls. Really one felt sorry for poor exhausted paedophiles...

The eventual resolution is rather odd: a final discussion makes it clear whodunnit (which I don't think could be solved by diegetic means but was extremely obvious from the shape of the story), but the text appears to indicate that the wrong person may yet be arrested and punished, and then cuts off abruptly in an explanatory flashback. As a close to the story it's distinctly unsatisfying (as if Brand has reached her word count, thrown her bits of story to the floor and flounced out).

So that's Christianna Brand – at least all the Cockrill and Charlesworth books. (She apparently wrote two more about an Inspector Chucky, and ten singletons often under different names, that I haven't laid hands on.) I have to say I feel I was led astray by the excellence of Green for Danger: apart from some of the early ones, her other books seem to have fallen into the same pattern of being populated entirely by hateful people about whom one doesn't care. (Even Green for Danger has some of this, but it seems more drawn from the life and deals with people who are at least reasonably competent at a difficult job; the others have it much worse.) She's technically pretty good, particularly at keeping a large crowd of suspects in play, but at times does this by simply withholding information rather than by laying false trails.

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