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.

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