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.

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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. 

SPOILER START:

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. 

END SPOILERS 

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!

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Christianna Brand: Suddenly At His Residence (1947)

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

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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.