“Life doesn’t stand still, even when murders and mysteries force themselves into the lives of ordinary people like ourselves. Things seem to go on much as usual, and you talk and eat and get on with your everyday life, because there’s nothing else to be done about it; but it’s all in your mind, and it’s rather a strain. I think that’s why they were playing vingt-et-un.”
Having displayed, in her 1941 debut novel, a facility for “murder in the workplace” – the promise of which she would fulfill in spades in her third mystery – Christianna Brand turned that same year to Malice Domestic for her second whodunnit, Heads You Lose. Here we can see her refining what will become a trademark in her work: the development of a close-knit circle of charming characters, whose likability will up the emotional stakes for the reader as it is made immediately and abundantly clear that one or more of them will die – and one of them is a killer. The best of her work delivers a sensational gut punch at the end, and if we don’t quite reach that sublime moment in this novel. there is still plenty to admire – particularly the introduction of Brand’s main sleuth, Inspector Cockrill . . .
“. . . a little brown man who seemed much older than he actually was, with deep-set eyes beneath a fine broad brow, an aquiline nose and a mop of fluffy white hair fringing a magnificent head. He wore his soft felt hat set sideways, as though he would at any moment break out into an amateur rendering of ‘Napoleon’s Farewell to his Troops’; and he was known to Torrington and in all its surrounding villages as Cockie. He was widely advertised as having a heart of gold beneath his irascible exterior; but there were those who said bitterly that the heart was so infinitesimal and you had to dig so deep down to get to it, that it was hardly worth the trouble. The fingers of his right hand were so stained with nicotine as to appear to be tipped with wood.”
Before Cockie can arrive on the scene, we meet the squire of the great house in Pigeonsford village, Stephen Pendock, who is the epitome of handsome benevolence:
“ . . . looking down into the clear cold water of the Cornish seas, you looked into the very depth and color of Pendock’s eyes. Kind eyes, good eyes, humorous, warm friendly eyes . . . “
His winter guests are an assortment of old friends, warm, friendly people, each of whom Brand manages to capture in a nutshell. There’s the grand dame, Lady Hart, “whose tiny head looked like nothing so much as a pea perched upon a goodly cottage loaf,” and her beautiful twin granddaughters, Francesca Hart and Venetia Gold. These two have a “Snow White and Rose Red” thing going on:
“Venetia was like her name, all Gold: a golden cobweb that looked as if it might, at any moment, be blown away by the lightest breath of wind to some enchanted land where it really belonged; but Fran, as slim and tall and delicately built as her twin . . . had yet a look of staunchness about her, a look of courage and resolution as though she would match herself against the world and come out, lightheartedly, the victor.”
Venetia is married to Henry Gold, and Brand takes especial care to show us how much Henry is loved by the group. Perhaps that is meant to make up for his description as “an ugly, little” Jew: we are constantly reminded of his propensity for making money and of his “warm Jewish heart.” It was a sign of the times for authors to treat Judaism as a brand, and at least our Miss Brand paints a rosy little picture, even if it still feels awkward when his adoring wife says, “Don’t get all sentimental and Jewish on my darling, or I shall start howling.
But it is sister Francesca who is the main object of intrigue here: extremely lovely and extremely marriageable, she must choose between the much older but adoring (and rich) “Uncle” Pen and the “vague, rather droopy” soldier and sailor (and future heir) James Nicholl. Nicholl’s lack of sentimentality is refreshing in this sweetly sentimental group: even on his wedding day, he sneaks off into a corner of the church to read Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Add a kindly old butler and you have assembled a perfectly lovely group. Maybe too lovely? It’s a relief that the final member of this menage is Pendock’s tenant, Grace Morland, a twittering spinster who is venomous and pathetic, hopelessly in love with her landlord, and my favorite character in the book. (This should put to rest the suggestion – nay, accusation – by my good friend James Scott Byrnside that I prefer likable characters I could have a beer with.) Brand deftly illustrates both Grace’s jealousy and her social awkwardness (she thinks A Passage to India is a travel book and wonders aloud why Venetia would keep a dachshund as a pet during the war against the Germans.)
Sadly, we don’t get to spend much time with Grace because, by the start of Chapter Two, she lies dead in Pendock’s garden, Francesca’s brand-new hat perched atop her severed head. Earlier in the day, when Grace had seen the hat perched atop Fran’s pretty head, she had spitefully said, “I wouldn’t be seen dead in a ditch in a thing like that!” This is a funny line in retrospect, but it is also a salient clue, as it reduces the number of suspects to the six lovely people who heard Grace say it.
The passing of Grace immediately precedes the arrival of her cousin, the fading London revue star Pippi Le May, who is, in her own way, as interesting and alarming a character as Grace was. Unfortunately, by the end of Chapter Four, Pippi, too, is sans la tête. It is up to Cockie to determine which of the remaining folks, all of them so very nice, is the killer, as well as whether these two deaths are connected to a similar murder of a neighbor’s kitchen-maid that happened the previous summer, and whether our killer is, as the brutality of the murders seem to indicate, a raving lunatic.
Except . . . Cockie doesn’t do much of anything for the rest of the book. We now have ninety more pages to go before the final reveal, and instead of an investigation, we get a deeper look into matters of the heart and head at Pendock’s manor. True, one chapter covers the double-inquest of the two victims, and it reveals the ups and downs of Heads You Lose – “ups and downs”, mind you, in terms of what sort of classic mystery reader you are. Brand delivers a wonderfully funny human comedy as the inquest commences: the human fallibility of the clergy and the coroner are exposed; the dachshund Aziz gets his moment to shine as he attempts to bring down the proceedings after he is banned from them; the jury begins to succumb, one by one, to fits of nausea as the forensic evidence is cheerfully delivered by the town doctor; and Fran begins to weigh her romantic choices between Pendock and James based on their “personality” of each man’s testimony.
Evidence is given, but clearly the author’s focus is on the humorous foibles of the characters. Inspector Cockrill does notgive evidence; in fact, he makes but the briefest of appearances. It’s feels like, after delivering a pretty straightforward mystery in her debut, Christianna Brand is at a crossroads over what she wants to write: a murder mystery, or a novel of manners with murder included. If you’re reading this and you’re new to Brand, I absolutely promise that she will find a way to better balance her two writing impulses from here on in. Still, what we’re left with for most of this investigatory period is very little in the way of investigation. It’s quite delightful to read, but at the same time it can leave one frustrated if one picked up a book called Heads You Lose expecting to find a taut whodunnit.
Still, there is a puzzle to solve here, and it is composed of some intriguing elements. How did someone get out of the house to kill Pippi when the on-duty constable insists nobody left their room during the night? What can one make of the fact that the snow surrounding her body is pristine, devoid of any footprints or disturbance? What earthly motive could any of these nice people have for violently murdering these two women (and, possibly, a third totally unrelated female the previous year)?
Cockie has his theories, but so do some of the others, and the group spends the final section of the novel working en masse to reveal who the killer is. We get two fake theories presented to us, and each one of them is extremely promising and entertaining. Either one would have made for a good, if not great, solution. What Brand chooses to do instead amounts to pretty much a cop-out. Oh, it’s highly dramatic, and one can imagine that the author was going for an emotional sting. I cannot accuse Brand of coming out of nowhere with this choice of culprit, but I can explain (in the spoiler section below) why it is so disappointing.
Heads You Lose is not a wasted read, as it’s funny and charming and, if you study the works of Christianna Brand, comes across as a good practice exercise for her better work. She will rise to the challenge in her very next book, Green for Danger, and then, in some ways, she will return to the setting and the people of Heads You Lose, revise it all, and produce a much better version of the same basic situation in her fourth novel, Suddenly at His Residence.
The best is yet to come . . .
* * S P O I L E R S * *
As I have written before, I am a sucker for a good story featuring a mad killer. But the best of these prepare us for madness. I’m thinking of Christie, of course: in Murder Is Easy, And Then There Were None, and Towards Zero, the foundation for the killer being mad is firmly established.
In Heads You Lose, we are given a situation where it appears that someone would have to be nuts to behead two or three people. And yet, while it’s true that Squire Pendock has headaches and bad dreams throughout the novel, we do not see a firm foundation laid for the killer to be insane. The false solutions provide us with more interesting motives and methods: could elderly Trotty have utilized her past skills as a trapeze artist to commit murder in order to protect Fran? Could Lady Hart have killed on an impulse to protect her granddaughter’s happiness and then scrambled to hide the killing from the others?
But no, Stephen Pendock, the true murderer, is revealed when, during all this false theorizing, he basically has a fit (it is suggested that he suffered from epilepsy, on a previously unknown theory that he might have inherited this condition from his mother; of course, this theory of epilepsy is positively medieval!) and in a fugue state does the following:
- remembers all his murders;
- tries to kill Fran;
- saves Fran by killing himself.
We learn that Pendock did not kill the maid the previous summer, but it’s posited that his discovering the body triggered a latent condition. Then it’s confusing as to whether he was killing Grace and Pippi to protect Fran or because he thought, in the fatal moment he strangled them, that each of them was the girl of his dreams.
Ultimately, the clueing is insufficient, and the choice of who, how, and why disappointed this reader. The final scene, where Fran gets married to James, is another lovely and funny one, but when at the end Fran and Venetia shed their tears for “dear Pen,” I sadly did not feel the emotional kick I was meant to feel.
A lovely read, a flawed mystery, a continued promise of much better things to come.