RogerBW's Blog

Tour de Force, Christianna Brand 29 June 2017

1955 detective fiction; sixth and last of Brand's novels of Inspector Cockrill. On a Conducted Tour (an early package holiday) in Italy, one of the group is murdered. Nobody has a strong motive, and everyone seems to have an alibi. But the local Grand Duke is determined to execute someone

This is a book that suffers badly from what has come since. In 1955 a package tour somewhere sunny might have seemed exotic and exciting; by the 1980s they were bad jokes. Brand successfully worked out most of what the jokes would be, and uses them here, but to a modern reader they come off as worn and tired sniping at an easy target, in a way that the rest of the period setting doesn't. Why did Cockrill (our supposed hero, let's bear in mind) come on the tour at all, if he's so determined to hate everything about it and complain about not getting the food and drink he'd have at home? This is never explained. The locals are comic stereotypes.

The charming Puerto de Barrequitas, Port of the Little Boats, sends forth its fishing fleet night after moonless night and in the grey dawn welcomes it back with its contraband cargo; all hands, including such members of the international anti-smuggling police as have not been out to sea with it, turning to, to help with the unloading. But even so it has proved, since the war, impossible to feed the insatiable maw of the contraband-hungry tourist trade, without recourse to the mainland, and San Juan reluctantly smuggles in, instead of through, the Swiss watches, American nylons, French liqueurs and Scotch whisky especially manufactured in Madrid, Naples, and Cairo for this purpose. These are exhibited in the local shops with 'Smuggled' in large letters printed on cards in various languages [...]

As usual with Brand one doesn't expect any sympathetic characters, and my word one doesn't get them. There's the successful and shallow female novelist, the stock homosexual fashion designer (returning from Death in High Heels though little is made of this), the unhappily-married couple, the local tour guide, and the two nearly-invisible quiet women.

She dropped her own eyes before his casual glance: a secret creature with a closed secret face — with leaf-brown hair kept secret under a tight-fitting hat, with a good figure kept secret in a repression of corset and brassière, with clothes whose excellence was so discreet that none but Mr Cecil would trouble to look at them twice: with far more good looks than ever the flamboyant Louli Barker could boast, kept secret beneath an apparently almost deliberate under-emphasis — devoid of make-up, tight lipped, unsmiling, chill.

One of them will be murdered; one of them will be blamed; nobody will end up happy. Brand seems to hate them too, as well as all the other package-tourists, dwelling on their accents and silly ideas.

'Oh, do you say sangwidged too?' said Louli, delighted. Mr Cecil, who knew no other way of saying it, was mystified but let it go.

one of the more obscure Jollies had been assaulted by one of the sailors in a Nasty Way and the rest of the women were treating her as Untouchable and wishing like anything that it had happened to themselves.

The actual mechanics of the murder I found frankly implausible bordering on impossible, though many puzzle-fans were satisfied. Some evidence is relied on heavily, then undermined, where I as a reader was simply regarding it as flimsy from the start; other evidence is mentioned and then apparently forgotten, but turns out to be important. I suppose this is all within the bounds of fair play, but it feels like gamesmanship more than the genuine mistakes that these people would make. The only real period detail is currency restrictions, and the casual disregard for those regulations which everyone here shows (even Cockrill).

I suppose it's all right, but the characters were wearing and there wasn't much to engage me here.

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