RogerBW's Blog

Death in High Heels, Christianna Brand 15 December 2016

1941 detective fiction; first of Brand's novels, and first to feature Inspector Charlesworth. One of the senior staff of a London dress-shop dies of poison; her co-workers are the only plausible suspects.

Yes, thanks to Past Offences my chronological reading of Allingham and Marsh has been extended to include Brand. The setting for this story was very obviously inspired by Allingham's The Fashion in Shrouds of a few years earlier, but it approaches the problem from the opposite end. Where Allingham is primarily interested in her characters, and makes the detection puzzle mostly a question of who would have done the various things, Brand takes a more conventional approach and concentrates on who could have: who could have got hold of the poison, who could have put it in the victim's food, and last of all who might have had a motive to see her dead.

There are ten suspects, and most of them are in play for most of the book; it's perhaps slightly too many, and for me at least some of them blended somewhat into each other as they're painted in very broad strokes. Which is the one with the artist husband again? Phonetic representations of lower-class accents abound. It's been suggested that Brand worked on this book while working as a salesgirl herself (in a different trade), as a way of working out her fantasies about killing a co-worker or manager; I can believe these people might originally have been drawn from the life, but they're so blurred they would probably never have recognised themselves.

There's the owner, who seems to have been sleeping with half the staff; the dress-designer, one of those terribly stereotyped homosexuals whom everyone is happy to laugh at; the victim's secretary; the "right hand" of the owner, "mannish" and unliked; the three "vendeuses"; the three "mannequins"; and the charlady. (I note that the vendeuses are all respectably "Mrs", though one of them's widowed and another is going through a divorce; the mannequins have no such social protection.) There's utterly ruthless narratorial policing of acceptable behaviour: all women who do the right thing are charming, all women who don't are horrible, all men who like books and plays rather than fighting over women must be pansies, and so on.

Motives multiply too: a new branch is to be opened in Deauville and several of the senior staff were in contention for the post, and there are various possibilities of blackmail bandied about. (There's absolutely no evidence of the ongoing war here, and I wonder how long this book had been sitting before it was published.)

It rapidly becomes clear that everyone is lying; but everyone also has something to lie about, things which are far more important to them than the remote possibility of an accusation of murder. Charlesworth flounders about, feels smug, falls for one of the suspects (the one with the artist husband, in fact), and then a little over half-way through gives up and gets another inspector brought in on the case (though Charlesworth does solve it in the end). I suppose all the evidence is there (though I have no recollection of one particular bit being presented), but Brand does such a good job of keeping suspects in play that the eventual killer was just one of several on my list.

What kept me going was the humour; it's fairly black and bitter at times, but there are some good moments, as when Charlesworth is admonishing a subordinate:

"Don't do it again, that's all. You needn't worry any more about it; I've got it off my chest and it's over. How's the missus?" he added, in a praiseworthy effort to make amends. P.C. Jenkins replied that his wife passed away some years ago.

It's frankly lightweight, and certainly not on a par with the Big Four, but there's good storytelling here. Followed many years later by The Rose in Darkness.

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See also:
The Fashion in Shrouds, Margery Allingham

Series: Inspector Charlesworth | Next in series: Death of Jezebel

  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 01:37pm on 15 December 2016

    Is this meant to be damning with faint praise?

    I only ask out of mild curiosity because your reviews are failing to sell me on the need to read them, in fact, as we've discussed before, I find myself asking the question of why bother to read books that are not much fun to read?

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:46pm on 15 December 2016

    In any review, I want you to know the good points and the bad points.

    I wouldn't recommend you start your exposure to classic mysteries here, and I don't think there's a gaping hole in your life if you haven't read it, but it was nonetheless enjoyable.

    I read this book because I'm aiming to read all of Brand (along with Marsh and Allingham). I didn't want those hours of my life back when I'd finished. I'd rather read this than some rah-rah-'Murica rote mil-fic. But it's also not a book to praise from the rooftops; very few books are.

    This is why I don't have star ratings. If you know you are particularly annoyed by the annoying things that I've mentioned, you know you'll hate this book, so you shouldn't waste your time reading it. If you can get past them and enjoy the story, then it's worth a look.

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