It’s high time that I begin to fulfill a goal I set for myself at the beginning of the year. Christianna Brand is one of my four favorite mystery authors, and yet I have devoted very little time on this space to her work and her career. There is sadly very little in print about her: most of what I’m going to share comes from brief biographical snippets from the wikis, a few telling phrases about her in Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Detection, and a brief but fuller-bodied biography that appeared as an afterward by Tony Medawar when Bodies From the Library 4 included a long-forgotten 1945 novella by Brand called “Shadowed Sunlight.”
What this means is that I can’t do with Christianna Brand what I can when I talk about Agatha Christie, my favorite author, about whom dozens of books discussing her life and/or work have been written (with a new biography coming out this fall). If I want to consider a point about John Dickson Carr, I turn to Douglas Greene’s biography, The Man Who Explained Miracles, which is a model of how to write a book about a mystery writer. For Ellery Queen, I can turn to Francis M. Nevins or Joseph Goodrich. In short, as I read the books by my other three favorite authors, I can read about them as well.
Most of the published information about Brand amounts to a scattering of bare bones facts: her real name was Mary Milne, and she was born in Malaya to a mother who died when Mary was very young and a father who then moved his family back to England, enrolled his daughter in a convent school and then pretty much forgot about her. Further information suggests that she was resourceful, independent, and perhaps restless. She skipped from job to job, including dancer, model, and governess. While selling kitchen appliances, she had a co-worker who was, according to Medawar, “a woman so loathsome that she was memorialized as the victim” in Mary’s first mystery novel. She was now married to a surgeon named Roland Lewis, but for her writing she adopted the nom de plume “Christianna Brand,” combining her mother’s first name and her grandmother’s surname.
From Martin Edwards’ book, we get a disappointingly small amount of information, yet what we get suggests a vibrant – and slightly shady – character: she was “glamorous,” she “hated Anthony Gilbert,” she was “an unreliable gossip” and could be “frank to the point of rudeness.” She evidently liked to spill the tea, but the longest sentence Edwards writes about her is: “Brand’s entertaining anecdotes need to be taken with a massive grain of salt.”
Brand was inducted into the Detection Club in 1946, and she was nearly as prolific as Christie, Carr and Queen. The bad news is that, despite a career that spanned over thirty-five years, writing under at least six pseudonyms, after 1955, Brand all but threw over the mystery genre that had spawned her. There were some short stories (some damn fine short stories!), but she didn’t write another mystery novel until 1976. She followed that up with another in 1979, but by then she was quite ill, and she died in the middle of writing one more adventure for her finest creation, Inspector Cockrill.
Today we begin our Re-Branding project, an examination of the ten mystery novels she wrote (with maybe a handful of short stories thrown in. I’ve read nine of these titles before, but it has been many years since I picked up her books. The 1976 novel was unknown to me until my friend Ben at The Green Capsule read and reviewed it. It was impossible to find a copy of A Ring of Roses until a friend took pity on me and sent me a digital copy. I’ll be reading that one for the first time further down this road.
Like all my favorite mystery authors, Brand’s writing followed a trajectory – meaning, she got better as she went along. Thus, we will read the books chronologically – except for Death of Jezebel because after years and years, a new edition of that hard-to-find novel will finally be released by the British Library this August, and I will cover it along with the other members of Book Club.
Whenever I include spoilers, I promise to stick those into a specially labelled section so that you can avoid them and still, I hope, come away with a general sense of the book and my feelings for it.
Without further ado, let’s begin at the beginning . . .
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Death in High Heels (1941)
At the posh dress salon Christophe et Cie on Bond Street, a dozen or so managers, salesgirls, and models work together in just enough disharmony to ensure a murder before the end of Chapter One. Frank Bevan, the proprietor and manager, is a particularly loathsome specimen, having seduced and abandoned most of the lovelies in his employ. But he is not the victim. His right-hand woman, Miss Agnes Gregory, is a fright, both physically and emotionally. Throughout the workday, she goes out of her way to make herself loathsome, and then wonders pathetically why nobody in the shop loves her. She manages to strike terror and disgust in all her employees, to the point that when two of the salesgirls, Victoria and Rachel, go to the pharmacy to purchase some highly poisonous oxalic acid in order to clean a hat, they openly joke about poisoning Miss Gregory. But Miss Gregory is not the victim either.
No, it is Mr. Bevan’s other assistant, the exotic Miss Magda Doon, who ends up eating a dish of poisoned rabbit curry during lunch and dying horribly in hospital that evening. Scotland Yard sends one of its most promising young bucks, Inspector Charlesworth, to investigate what is assumed to be a simple problem of suicide, but it quickly becomes apparent that Miss Doon did not die by her own hand but that of another. Accompanied by the older, working-class Sergeant Bedd, Charlesworth enters a world of beauty and charm and sex – lots of surprisingly frank sex for a 1941 novel – and both men find their mental faculties scrambled by all the beauty surrounding him.
Charlesworth seeks to balance the question of opportunity (who could have slipped the poison into Miss Doon’s curry?) and motive. She appeared to have the goods on both her besotted young secretary (known to all as Macaroni) and the cockney cleaning woman, Mrs. ‘Arris. She stood in the way of one woman’s promotion and the romantic happiness of several others. Can our intrepid young Inspector, under pressure from his superiors to solve the case quickly, get his man or woman before the case is snatched out of his hands and turned over to an odious rival?
In 1941, Agatha Christie celebrated her 21st year as a published author by writing Evil Under the Sun and N or M. John Dickson Carr had been turning out mysteries for 11 years, and showed his prowess with The Case of the Constant Suicides and Seeing Is Believing. Ellery Queen was only a year away from sending his famous sleuth to a little New England town called Wrightsville and redefining what it meant to pick up a Queen novel. All three of these authors had made impressive debuts and only got better from there. And now, as the Second World War heralded significant changes in the puzzle plot mysteries that had dazzled readers in the 1920’s – 30’s, Christie and Queen were about to shift with the tide. (Carr would stick with the traditional mystery with gradually diminishing returns and divide his energies in the 1950’s – 60’ with historical thrillers.)
There is no doubt in my mind that Christianna Brand was at least influenced by Christie. At the end of Death in High Heels, when he is delivering the solution to the case, Inspector Charlesworth is not the only one to refer to his “little grey cells.” And while this first effort may lack the complexity and trickery in its puzzle-making of even the very young Agatha, what Brand delivers is one of the most enjoyable and charming debuts of any author I have read, and the promise of a complex puzzle is there. For now, it’s fun to spot some of the qualities of her writing that will end up serving her so well. Her ability to create a closed circle that you care about and want to spend time with quickly asserts itself here. Her cast is distinctly middle class, and the rich are treated with sly humor. When a minor character, the artist husband of salesgirl Victoria asks his high society mother for a favor, Brand sums up the mother and her society in a sentence:
“She then had recourse to a bottle which was kept hidden in her bathroom, a close secret from all but her husband, her servants and most of her acquaintances, and, fortified by this unfailing friend, proceeded cheerfully to disturb the midnight slumbers of the great.“
There is so much to love about this book that it almost doesn’t matter if the whodunnit aspect of the plot is . . . well, it’s not weak, it’s perfectly fine . . . it’s just not the novel’s strength. That comes from Brand’s portrayal of this place of business, of the effect of Doon’s murder not only on the closed circle of suspects but on the customers thirsty for scandal, who manufacture events just so they can stop in to try on clothes and pump the vendeuses for gossip about the murder.
So much of the book is downright hilarious, revealing a gift Brand had that was barely shared by Carr (on a good day) and pretty much ignored by Christie and Queen, and that is her ability to merge comedy, pathos and suspense into marvelous scene work. Inspector Charlesworth is by no means Brand’s best sleuth (he’ll arrive in the next book), but he’s a charmer, so cute you want to pinch his cheeks, so fallible that you can relate to his growing desperation to crack the case and his embarrassed lack of control as he interviews these beauties.
Each suspect is well delineated, and the characterization will only get better. Brand is especially good here with the minor characters – the bawling Macaroni, who turns out to have had a spicy private life, the morally outraged Mrs. ‘Arris, who pretends to be deaf so that the girls will spill their secrets in front of her, the swaggering Bobby Dazzler, who turns out to be a much better husband to Victoria than we could have ever imagined.
As for the main cast, there’s something vibrant and modern about this group that creates a sense of a writer celebrating the Golden Age even as she is moving forward. Bevan is clearly a dog with the ladies, but we all sense a trap when a disgusted Charlesworth tries to pin the murder on this rascal he clearly dislikes. At the same time, the women are not sexually passive: Doon is a much of a player as Bevan, Macaroni had a sinful past, Rachel is going through a divorce (thanks to a fling with Bevan) and worried about child custody, Aileen and Judy have boyfriends, and Victoria has a messy, sexy, happy married life, but doesn’t discourage Charlesworth’s mixture of lust and devotion. This is not your grandmother’s cozy mystery.
QUICK RANT: Having lavished so much praise, I suppose I must address the lavender elephant in the room: Christophe et Cie has a resident designer, and his name is Mr. Cecil – Cissy to his friends. Let’s face it: it’s nearly impossible to be anything other than a cis/white reader without getting your hackles raised by classic detective fiction. Christie’s mincing, effeminate men were morally repugnant (Murder Is Easy), neutered bitches (The Moving Finger) or mentally suspect (The Mousetrap), and although she finally gave us a charming lesbian couple in A Murder Is Announced, she had a similar pair murder each other in Nemesis, and what the heck is going on with Miss Casewell in The Mousetrap??? Ellery Queen waited until the 1960’s to introduce a gay character (the murderer, of course) and proving how unenlightened the author was in these late pre-Stonewall days. And Carr? Is it my mistake or did he ignore homosexuality altogether? Probably for the best.
Mr. Cecil is unbearably effeminate here, a mama’s boy (much is made here of the Freudian theory that his mother’s intense love made Cissy the creature he/she is today), and a crybaby. He is the object of nasty fun between the detectives, who joke about his gender and worry about being left alone with him. There are two suicide attempts in this novel: that of a female character is made a major set piece here and illustrates the intense closeness between the women and the desperation of the killer, while Cecil’s plan to do away with himself is played for laughs.
But I will say this for Mr. Cecil: he has as active a sex life as Mr. Bevan and the female characters do, and while Bevan preys upon his employees, Cecil is clearly looking for love (albeit in all the wrong places). Also, Cecil is a genius of a designer, and you see the respect and appreciation that his co-workers – even he-man Bevan – have for him. Brand clearly had affection for the character because she brought him back two more times, including in one of her greatest mysteries. We shall see more of Mr. Cecil anon. END OF RANT
In scene after scene, Brand keeps us so highly entertained that we can almost forgive her for a mystery that is, well, kind of forgettable. As Charlesworth lays out the clues that gave away the killer, each one seems a bit . . . clunky. The killer’s identity involves a reversal of sorts, but I couldn’t help asking myself why it took soooo long for the detectives to examine that particular perspective. In that way, the book can drag a bit, but the warmth and humor with which Brand imbues her prose kept this reader going. She manages to juggle the personalities and motives of eleven characters pretty well, although, in future books, she will wisely cut her casts nearly in half and create an even richer reading experience. Even here, though Brand – more than Carr, more than Queen, even more than Christie – is the one who taps into our emotions as much as our intellect.
The book was adapted into a play by Richard Harris and evidently still tours the provinces. I cannot attest to its quality, but you can see ads for productions by all sorts of community players on YouTube. It was also the second, and sadly last, of Brand’s novels to be adapted into a film: this one is a 47-minute-long cheapie meant to have been shown as a second feature. I have not seen it, but half the book’s characters are cut, and stills I’ve seen suggest that none of the glamour of a Bond Street clothing salon is in evidence.
Death in High Heels is a debut of great promise. It introduces an author who seems to have absorbed the lessons of the best Golden Age authors and injected a modern sense of style and character that will move the classic mystery forward into a new age. It is a lovely book to read . . . but the best is yet to come.
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S P O I L E R S
I don’t really have a lot to say about the solution to this case. My biggest problem with the mystery is that so much time is expended in Chapter One talking about how much everyone hates Miss Gregory, and then nobody entertains the idea that she might have been the intended victim until two hundred pages in. It’s also plainly shown that Gregory guided Doon to her lunch, and yet nobody discusses the possibility that Gregory could have doused the lunch with oxalic acid at that time. Just because nobody talks about something doesn’t mean it should be excluded as a possibility.
The ending here is also lacking in the emotional gut punch we will come to expect from Christianna Brand. Nobody could disarm us with a group of people we can’t help but like and then devastate both the closed circle and the reader when one of these dear people is unmasked as a killer quite like she could. In this first novel, she lets us off easy by selecting a character to be the killer whom nobody likes. Prepare to see the emotional stakes ramped up very quickly.