Christianna Brand: Suddenly At His Residence (1947)

A double impossible crime novel from a master craftswoman of strained family ties and explosive endings.

CB-2

It’s funny isn’t it how you build up a certain idea about a book. Usually from half remembered things you have read, which are usually actually about another book. And I’m frustrated I waited so long to read this work based on those thought. This is my first step into the world of Brand, as it is just marvellous.

I will talk from here about plot, character and impossible set up. There will be no solution spoilers, but if you aim to read this book fresh then come back after reading!

Brand has a lovely way with words, and you can see she is a writer who really just enjoyed the process of writing and constructing, and has fun with it. All through the book is an subtly acerbic, knife edge wit, gently handled, which is both cutting and hilarious. Brand starts us out in Suddenly At His Residence with a muddled set of family ties. There are mistresses everywhere, illegitimate children, eccentricity abounding and a husband with a second lover whom his wife knows and they all hang out together. The whole set of relationships are quite absurd, but feel totally believable, and are all the more biting in satire for how ridiculous they are. For a contemporary reference, it feels like something Sally Wainwright would pen, in the mould of Last Tango in Halifax. 

Brand’s motley crew find themselves together at Swans Water, a large country mansion house owned by the blustering Sir Richard March along with is second wife Bella. March is the grandfather of many of the characters, all of whom have been have been called, along with their significant others, to Swans Water for a very specific ceremony.

His first wife of 25 years, known as Grandmama Serafita, although dead for many years is certainly not forgotten. March had begun an affair with Belle while himself and Serafita was still married, bearing Belle a son. But Serafita is a force to be reckoned with, and chapter two opens with a conversation she has with her two sons, an exhibition of her lingering power:

‘Perhaps you may outlive her, Maman,’ the sons would suggest, laughing again. 

‘No, no, I am too tactful to grow old,’ Serafita would say complacently. ‘You shall see. I shall die, still young and beautiful’ (she was at this time well over forty), ‘and your father will never forgive himself. He will bring her here, this Yarmouth Belle, with her illegitimate brat, and she shall live in my home and listen to the nothing but “Serafita”, “Serafita”, “Serafita” till she is sick of the very sound of my name –’ 

This was exactly what happened. 

The ceremony then, that Sir Richard March insists on observing each year, is a memorial service to the memory of Serafita. Prayers are said, hymns sung, portraits covered in wreaths and all the family must attend, even his second wife Belle. March then spends the night in the psuedo-Grecian style temple that Serafita had erected near the entrance gates of Swanswater, the place where she breathed her last. He takes an all night vigil in the temple ‘often holding out for as much as twenty minutes before falling off into his customary untroubled slumber.’ The grounds are also to be kept perfect for the ceremony, and her favourite flowers are planted and furiously maintained by March and his groundsman.

This means that Serafita through painting, object, and smell (a sense underused in fiction) haunts the entire of Swans Water, looking down at you from every room, and has this eerie presence over each character. This was a great way to establish atmosphere, and charges the book with an extra kick.

Later in the day when strains on the family are too much, and complications about the family inheritance are brought to breaking point, March classically marches to the temple to change his will, cutting out his entire set of grandchildren, and does not wish to be disturbed in doing so. He is found the next morning, slumped at the desk, poisoned. But one problem remains, the paths were freshly sanded after he went in, and there are no foot prints, apart from the person who found him. And he has been dead since the middle of the night.

What really impressed me about this book was the sheer amount of false solutions that Brand draws out. As the relationships in the house become more and more strained, accusations fly about how March was killed, characters accusing one another both in jest and in seriousness. These accusations present more and more ingenious false solutions, many of which I would never even have thought of and that would have made lovely solutions in other books.

As for the impossible crimes themselves, the solution to the first is still growing on me, but it works, and is very clever. The solution to the second one in my opinion is even better and is very nicely clewed. I know Kate reviewed this earlier in the year and there were some reservations about the impossible crimes, so I would love to hear your spoiler free thoughts on that.

I had read a few times recently that Brand was a master of the killer ending, and this book does not disappoint! Wow. A sudden change of pace, that also rapidly moves the plot on and reveals the killer, straining the family to their limits. I’d read the book just for that.

The thing that snagged for me with this book was the presence, or lack of presence, of Brand’s detective Cockrill. He comes into the investigation very much on the back foot, which is a great idea, but then that doesn’t seem to be expanded on. And after that we don’t really see him. The characters are the ones who bring us the main deductions and clues, Cockrill buzzes around, and does his fair share of stirring up characters to anger, and therefore hopefully to honesty, but I didn’t feel he did much else. Is this indicative of Brand? I would be interested in hearing more.

However that is an aside, and doesn’t spoil the book over all. Simply put, I cannot wait to get onto the next Brand! And thanks to Ben as well over at The Green Capsule, whose glowing reviews of some of Brand’s other work inspired me to get on and read one.

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22 thoughts on “Christianna Brand: Suddenly At His Residence (1947)”

  1. You know what I find fascinating about this particular title? How much public opinion has shifted in its favor over the past 10-12 years. During the mid-2000s, Suddenly at His Residence was not looked upon as favorably as is the case today. Often the book was dismissed as an inferior, mid-tier work hampered by melodramatic sentimantality, but that completely changed this decade.

    Remarkably, John Dickson Carr’s Till Death Do Us Part underwent a similar transformation. Once perceived as an obscure, mid-tier work has recently emerged as somewhat of a fan favorite. I wonder if this change in perception is due to the influx of new readers brought to the genre by the massive, torrential downpour of reprints that burst loose in the early 2010s.

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    1. Really interesting point TC. It makes me think of the 1981 top locked room list, and how that is undergoing something of a complete rethink among modern readers and bloggers. What do you think it is that people like about these titles now?

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  2. I liked this one, but I wasn’t sure I loved it. What I liked most was that I wasn’t able to catch onto the solution – this rarely happens to me, but for some reason I caught onto the solution for ‘Fog of Doubt’/ ‘London Particular’ and ‘Tour de Force’. The challenge with Christianna Brand is that she only wrote a small handful of good mystery novels, and I would recommend that you read ‘Green for Danger’ and ‘Death of Jezebel’ at the very end, as they are her best works. Having managed my reading list poorly, I have to contend with the less-than-stellar ‘Death in High Heels’ and ‘Heads You Lose’ as my last two Brand novels. 😦

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    1. Thanks JFW. I have this dream of going into a second hand book shop and finding a copy of Death of Jezabel. I’m probably going to go for Tour De Force next, and I’m interested to see, how you sat, that the solutions may be easier to catch on to. I certainly didn’t see the one from SAHR coming.

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      1. Brand is a great one for buildin you up towards a certian solution only to whip it away at the last moment…which is what makes Tour de Force all the more baffling to me, but perhaps I’ll stop riding this hobby horse; plenty of people love it, I just felt it was rather too obvious from rather too early on.

        This one, however, is great — after being thoroughly unmoved by Green for Danger I was delighted to find this as enjoyable as I did, with the various character quirks and the overall plotting being much more adroitly handled. I think Brand walked a bit of a fine line with her writing — you either go for it or you don’t, I can’t eblieve there’s much middle ground — and so the books either really work for you or really don’t, and this is why she’s fallen out of sight. Christie benefitted not just from permanent reprinting but also from the fact that if you didn’t quite go for one then you’d doubtless love another. A smaller output makes this less likely, and may ave had a larger hand in Brand’s near-total disappearance for so many years.

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      2. Managed to get a copy of tour de force second hand in London town. See what you mean about the fine line and brevity of books to enjoy. I’m interested to see how the other books stand up.

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      3. I can lend you Death of Jezebel if you tire of looking for it at a sensible price; alternatively, buy a Kindle, as I have a feeling it’s available electronically…

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      4. Sadly, ‘Death of Jezebel’ no longer appears available on Kindle… 😦 Personally, I thought ‘Tour de Force’ was the more interesting novel, in comparison to ‘Suddenly at His Residence’ – but I somehow managed to guess the solution to the former, not the latter.

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  3. I remember, upon first reading this title, being delighted with the subtlety of the characterization of the young man who has symptoms of hysteria, some of which are feigned and some natural. I found the presentation so realistic … similarly the relationship between the wife and mistress was more like real life than I had ever seen in a mystery. Most mysteries of the time simplified the characterization but Brand made it more ambiguous and realistic. And, as you note, the character of Serafita is subtle and intelligently done, even though she’s never actually present in the book. It surprised me because I’d already found Brand’s contemporaries like Sayers to be much, much less realistic in characterization even though Sayers was well-known to want that in mysteries — and Brand was the only one who was achieving it.

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  4. I’ve been wanting to read this one since Kate reviewed it earlier this year. Brand’s writing is so peculiar when you first encounter it, and then it just envelops you. Fog of Doubt is an example of a story that sounds somewhat conventional on the surface, but Brand transforms it into an experience that haunts you. I love to think of what she could do with a set up as compelling as Suddenly at His Residence.

    As for Cockrill – he plays somewhat of a background role for the majority of Green For Danger. He is a central character of Fog of Doubt and we observe much of the story from his perspective.

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