Tour de Force: Christianna Brand (1955)

Inspector Cockrill finds himself, very unwittingly, on an package holiday of Italian islands. During a sleepy afternoon in the sun, a small number of the tour guests have stayed behind at their hotel to soak in the sun. But things turn sour when one of the group is found murdered in their hotel room, their body arranged in a cryptically ritualistic fashion. A ticking timer provided by the local police force, and the growing madness of the group means Cockrill has to work fast to solve the crime. The only problem? Every suspect was in his sight on the beach at the time of the murder.


Making my way through Brand’s work for the first time has been an absolute joy. I am coming to see (as with many many writers in this ol’ golden age crime genre) how underrated she is, and Tour de Force doesn’t disappoint. I had heard much about this book on locked room lists and the like, and was super happy to find a lovely first edition (pictured above) in my regular second hand book shop trawl a few months back.

The whole piece is set on the fictional island of San Juan el Pirata off the coast of Tuscany, where the group have found themselves held after the murder. The mixture of both corrupt and straight laced local police have their own ideas and methods of how they will deal with the crime, which bring some pretty high stakes for getting the murder solved. The characters are instantly memorable, often tragic figures, who are a great selection of 1950’s British society to be stuck together on a ‘foreign land’. As they are pushed to the limits, their psychological flaws are revealed and the book becoming a clever satire of positive and negative British attitudes of the time. It’s reads like an precursor to Death in Paradise. 

And it’s pretty damn funny as well. Take this passage for example from the first chapter, as Cockrill arrives into Italy on the plane:

…his money being paid and withdrawal now impossible, he had received the assurance of the travel agency that he would find delightful friends among his fellow tourists, he had been contemplating their coming association with ever increasing gloom. ‘She and all the rest,’ he thought. ‘They’re Them.’ 

The clewing is spot on, with seeds being sown at every possible point in the plot, leading to forehead slapping moments by the end. But, what was really impressive about this book – and I made the same point in my review of Brand’s 3rd Inspector Cockrill mystery Suddenly at His Residencewere the false solutions and pieces of ratiocination by the characters. They come thick and fast, punctuating much of the plot, giving you that satisfaction of continuing revelation that drives so much of the best GAD work along.

This seems to be the case for everything of Brand that I have read so far. She continues to pull ideas out of the hat as the plot goes, and I confess to not even having thought of half of them, even though they are just the throw away revelations. So many of the ideas, clues and false solutions that are batted aside would make up the final solutions of other (maybe lesser well thought through) novels without a problem.

There was one false solution in particular which totally blew me away with its elegance and simplicity, and I actually thought it would have made a better solution over all. Which brings me to the criticisms for this work, which has light spoilers so finish here if you want this book fresh. 


Fellow blogger JJ of The Invisible Event described this book to me as very clever, but that it’s possibly a little to easy to cotton on to what is happening, and that once you do it becomes obvious what is happening and takes away it’s impact. Unfortunately, he is right on this account, and my experience of this title was totally inline. However in saying that she uses the device well that and it doesn’t make it any less of a joy to read.

Alongside this – and this is up for debate please readers – I am not so sure that the whole thing is really an impossible crime, in how the solution works itself out. I don’t think it’s as watertight as it could be, and I wonder if it should really be called a impossible crime piece at all? (Dodging bullets here possibly!) This goes back to questions of what constitutes an impossible crime in the first place, which myself and JJ have discussed both here and here. 


Coming in at 271 pages in my edition it is a fair old length for a GAD novel, and does suffer on that account. ‘Dragging the Marsh’ has been the phrase used elsewhere in the bloggersphere for this. As with a GAD novelist like McCloy, Brand is clearly enjoying herself here, and is packing the book with ideas therefore. But she could have held back, as with so many ideas going on, some of the revelations and clues loose there impact simply because they are swamped by the overall length, and by the strength of other plot points.

Over all, another great piece by Brand, and with recently finding a good copy of London Particular (Fog of Doubt), and a new book edited by GAD aficionado Tony Medawar including as of yet unpublished works from Brand, you will see much more of Brand on this blog!

20 thoughts on “Tour de Force: Christianna Brand (1955)”

  1. I am glad you enjoyed this one, Dan, and that you like Brand so much. She is one of the four greats at my bridge table (the others being Christie, Carr, and Queen), and she never disappoints me. I would not have labeled this one an impossible crime, but then I start thinking of those novels where the manner of death is straightforward but the alibis seem tight, and i guess you have to add those types of stories to the list. I know folks have complained that the ultimate solution here is too farfetched to be believable. I found it so moving, for reasons that I won’t go into here (spoilers) but which I’m sure you understand. Of my four favorites, Brand is the Queen of Hearts because she, of all of them, makes me care the most for her characters. I cry for the killers in Green for Danger and A Rose in Darkness. Her crimes have consequences.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Brad. I discussed the impossible/alibi issue a little while back (linked to it in the post) and it is a really tricky one. Ol’ Tom Cat had a really nice view on it which was: ‘a cast-iron alibi can be considered an impossibility under one, very strenuous condition: the alibi should not merely rely on witnesses (who can lie or be misled) or theater tickets, but the murderer should appear to have been physically incapable of having carried out the crime. You can do that in a number of ways.’ – So yes indeed this novel doesn’t fall into that category.

      And I love your Queen of Hearts title for Brand. There is a bit of madness to this solution but you are right it is emotional, as is the whole book. I am yet to read Green For Danger, but the end of Suddenly at His Residence hit me hard as well.


      1. I’m putting the finishing touches to a two-part post on misdirection, where I briefly discuss my four favorite authors and end up with Christie. I’ll be doing an in-depth discussion of one of hers that relies on those “couldn’t have done it” alibis!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Holy Poe! I’m being cited like some sort of proper authority on these matters… and I think I can get used to that. Pray continue!

        You better brace yourself for the emotional impact that’ll be waiting for you at the end of London Particular. Brand was indeed the Queen of Hearts and nowhere, not even in Green for Danger, was that more evident than in London Particular.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Glad you’re enjoying your time with Brand. I remember liking this one, but it’s been a while since I read it so can’t remember too many details. Definitely one to re-read (so consequently skipped your spoiler section). London Particular is a good one as far as I can recall as well.

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  3. Thanks for the review. 🙂 I think I enjoyed this title more than I did ‘Suddenly at His Residence’ – even though I spotted a key aspect to the solution for this title, and not for ‘Suddenly at His Residence’. There is something fairly bold, even brazen, about the twist that made it somewhat impressive even if guessable. 🙂 I’ve read most of Christianna Brand’s mysteries, and I only have ‘Heads You Lose’ left. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks JFW. You are right, the solution is brazen, and daring in many respects, and similar things have been done to death since. It’s certainly impressive, and its the audacity but the genuine link with the context she has set out which is awesome.


      1. I can’t deny that the moment of revelation herein has real power behind it, but for someone as adept at Brand when it comes to spinning you in circles this was at best second-tier work. But then I am the only person in the English-speaking world who thinks Green for Danger is merely okay, so perhaps I’m not in the best place to judge this. That, or everyone else is wrong. Both possibilities are equally likely.

        Liked by 1 person

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