RogerBW's Blog

Death of Jezebel, Christianna Brand 26 April 2017

1949 detective fiction; fourth of Brand's novels of Inspector Cockrill. Isabel Drew is domineering, vain, and thoughtless, but beautiful enough to get away with it. Today her chickens will be coming home to roost.

This is a locked-room murder that takes place in view of thousands of people: Isabel is the Princess in the Tower at a mediaeval pageant held on stage, with eleven knights capering about below on horseback. She falls from the tower… but she's clearly been strangled. How could anyone have got to the tower and back without being seen by everyone?

There's a chunk of period detail sent slightly askew in the setting for the murder, the Homes for Heroes Exhibition at the Elysian Hall, which is a clear parallel with the post-war return in 1947 of the Ideal Home Exhibition – and for which Brand is clearly full of contempt.

The enormous shell of the Elysian Hall was in process of conversion into a small township of model homes suitable for the Heroes of England—(who meanwhile crowded in with reluctant relatives, and by day tramped the streets pleading with agents and officials that anything would do, the wife wasn't particular, not any more…) Pseudo-Tudo cottages jostled staring white plastic, tortured into a series of Chinese boxes moulded from a single sheet: all-electric flatlets—a single cell, as it were, detached from the parent hive—sparkled with chastely camouflaged efficiency.

This also turns out to be a double series entry for Brand: while this is Cockrill's mystery to solve (he happens to be in London for a conference), Inspector Charlesworth from Death in High Heels reappears and is the officer in charge. (This was the reason for a code update to my blogging engine: a book can now be listed as a member of multiple series.) Alas, they immediately rub each other the wrong way, and Charlesworth's main narrative role is get everything wrong.

Where the keeping of all suspects in contention was done well in Green for Danger, here it starts to feel forced, particularly towards the end when each of them, apparently spontaneously, confesses and explains how they could have dunnit. (Their motivations for such confession are obscure, at best.) I didn't find the description of the murder scene adequate to work out which claims where plausible. An instance of particularly bad behaviour in Isabel's past, broken out into a prologue, seems almost superfluous; on the other hand, quite a few of the suspects spent time in Malaya during the Japanese occupation, and the post-traumatic stress of this is remarkably well portrayed.

Brand continues to do her usual trick of making everyone thoroughly unsympathetic, perhaps to excess; I never really found myself engaged with the mystery, concerned that other people might be killed, or worried about whether the murderer would escape. But when reading a mystery story I'm less interested in exact details of whether person A could have got from B to C without being seen by D (though some of that kind of puzzle has to be present), and more interested in whether person A's motivation and personality could plausibly have meshed so as to produce murder. I know, it's unreasonably demanding of me when the original audience largely demanded just the puzzle, but the puzzles have been done and people are still people.

Followed by London Particular.

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