RE-BRANDING #4: The Housing Crisis – Suddenly at His Residence

Two years after crafting Green for Danger, a classic wartime puzzle, Christianna Brand wrote Suddenly at His Residence, (a.k.a. The Crooked Wreath, a.k.a. x 2 One of the Family, its U.S. serialized title), her only extended family mystery and her first impossible crime novel. Inspector Cockrill appears for his third case, which means that, for as many times in a row, we find ourselves in Kent, in Heronsford near the village of Pigeonsford at yet another great house. Swanswater is the ancestral home of Sir Richard March, who has gathered his eccentric clan together for a bizarre ritual, a dramatic disinheritance, and, of course, murder. 

Every year, Sir Richard honors the memory of his beloved late wife, the beautiful ballet dancer Serafita, by holding a ritual with the family in the lodge house where she suddenly died and then spending the night there, alone with his memories. It’s a time-honored tradition his family endures, especially his second wife, the scholarly Bella, who was his mistress throughout most of his marriage, even bearing him a child, and who might regret having been made an honest woman since Sir Richard, preferring beauty to brains, constantly compares his second wife unfavorably to his first.

With all of his children having fallen victims to an earlier war, Sir Richard invites his four grandchildren, and they all bring problems of their own. Peta, his favorite, is prone to outrageous fashions and to shooting off her mouth in the most unfortunate way, especially when she’s nervous – which she always gets around her grandfather’s handsome lawyer, Stephen Garde. Grandson Philip, a doctor, intends to throw off Ellen, his wife and the mother of his child, for his beloved first cousin Clare, a struggling journalist. And then there’s Edward, a seventeen-year-old neurotic who has been convinced by a series of Viennese psychiatrists that he is going insane. This happy crowd all drives down together to try and appease their petulant grandfather in order to curry favor. Because, as you might have guessed, Sir Richard is quite a wealthy man, and he has a habit of changing his will every few months. 

Things go downhill quickly, and Sir Richard announces that he will be sending for his lawyer and disinheriting the three grandchildren by Serafita and leaving everything to Bella and Edward. He might as well be wearing a t-shirt that says, “Kill me now!” Sure enough, the following morning he is discovered dead in the lodge house at the gates of the estate, his body injected with enough heart medicine to kill TEN petulant patriarchs!

You know the drill: the lawyer is good friends with Inspector Cockrill, and so the sparrow-like Inspector is summoned to Swanswater, where this time he is confronted with a real impossible crime and a group of beautifully drawn characters who are a little less “nice” than the closed circles we have met in previous Brand novels. It’s hard not to compare this book with the earlier murder of Sir Richard’s neighbor that occurred in Heads You Lose. That book was charming, but the mystery was slight. Here, our characters are tense before the murder ever occurs, and the crime is of greater interest; why, it even appears in Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders

1946 was also the year that Agatha Christie’s The Hollow came out, and the two books share the conceit of a family conspiring against the detective to save one of their own. The fortunate result of that here is that we get a lot more of Cockie than we’ve had before. Once again, the detective finds himself at odds with a group of people he has long been fond of. Once again, he uses his own psychological methods to tear apart the united front held by the family, turning family member against family member. There’s also a marvelous inquest scene, as there was in Heads You Lose, only this time our focus is on Cockrill as he tries to guide the proceedings through a series of meaningful glares at the coroner. He fails miserably at this, and one of the family members ends up arrested for murder.

And then – a second impossible crime occurs, that of the unpleasant old gardener, and this one involves a locked room and a floor covered with dust with the dead man’s footprints (and a quickly scrawled confession in the dust) the only marks present. It looks like a convenient suicide that will exonerate the real members of the family, and yet this suggestion of halcyon days when loyal servants laid down their own lives for their masters is immediately dashed by the gardener’s wife, who sloughs off Bella March’s expressions of sympathy (“After all, I’ve just lost my husband, too . . . “) and lets her know exactly how things stand: 

“’(Lady March) is right when she says I’m innocent; and she knows it well enough; and she knows he’s innocent, too . . . Her and her sympathy! Do you think I don’t know that you’re all rejoicing up at the house because your precious Mrs. March can come out of prison now? Much you care, the whole pack of you, as long as you can go free, that he lies dead, to pay for your sins for you. Let the servants suffer! Don’t dream of punishing the rich or suspecting the rich, or saying a word that might hurt the precious feelings of the rich – not if you can find a servant to suffer in their place! You know as well as I do that he never killed Sir Richard! Brough! Brough kill a man to prevent an injustice! Him get himself into trouble to help somebody else! I can just see him! and then kill hisself to prevent another injustice.’ She laughed again, the same short, ugly, mirthless laugh . . . ‘He never killed the old man – not he!’”

I love the complexity Brand imbues into a minor character like Mrs. Brough. She actually despised her husband: she had turned him out of her bed long ago (“I don’t have him in my room no more; I’ve done with all that.”) and she knew him to be a selfish opportunist. But she will be damned to have him used in death as a patsy to protect the guilty. And the scene climaxes beautifully as Cockrill presses forward with Brough’s guilt – only Brough could have been in the lodge, onlyBrough could have written his confession in the dust – until Mrs. Brough pierces his “logic” with the fact that Brough couldn’t write. 

As much as I enjoyed this novel, it does start to drag a bit after Brough’s murder, as Cockrill all but disappears and we are treated to scene after scene of the family theorizing as to whodunnit. Some scenes are powerful, as when Philip and Clare’s final reckoning over their affair is interrupted by a blackmailing Mrs. Brough, while others melt into each other. 

And then there’s the problematic climax, where Cockrill lays out the sad truth that, loveable though the March family may be, one of them has killed two people and played havoc with the lives and feelings of the rest. He challenges the murderer to confess – and the murderer does not confess. What is a detective to do? Well, the detective doesn’t have to do anything because Brand chooses this moment to literally drop a bomb on the whole affair, causing everything to sort itself out in the best way possible. Personally, I cannot stand this sort of deus ex machina ending, but there you have it. Fortunately, Brand partially redeems herself by leaving the solution to how the killer got in and out of the lodge without leaving footprints for the final lines of the book – and that is always satisfying. 

Suddenly at His Residence may not come close to the greatness of Green for Danger, but it is a vast improvement, puzzle-wise, over the first two books. She paints a powerful portrait of a family in extremis and crafts, not one, but two excellent “footprints” puzzles for our enjoyment. But these impossibilities are mere dress rehearsal for her next novel, Death of Jezebel. Renowned as much for its rarity as for its puzzle, the book will finally receive a reprint this fall through the British Library. In celebration, my Book Club has made it their October read, so expect me to pick up on my Re-Branding project then. 

*     *     S  P  O  I  L  E  R  S  *     *

No stilts, no tumbling or acrobatics, just good old fashioned . . . toe shoes! We’re told right away that 1) Serafita was a ballet dancer, and 2) all of her things had been saved in tribute to her memory. Only Clare had feet small enough to fit into her grandmother’s slippers (we’re told that on page 26), and so – when she should have been changing the baby – she crept out to the lodge, put on the shoes, tiptoed over the sand to the door, killed her grandfather, and then tiptoed back. The next morning, she simply walked up to the cottage, stepping over the toe shoe marks and obliterating them. 

As for the death of Brough, we learn when Bella notices the absence of a mark she made in the dusty floor (on page 21 – Brand likes to lay down major clues on the first pages) that the dust must have been vacuumed up and then returned, using the machine’s reverse switch. Clare killed Brough, took off his slippers, put them on and retraced his own prints backward to the front door, then tossed the slippers back to the body (I mean, why would he have been found there with his slippers off???) 

MYSTERIES BY CHRISTIANNA BRAND

Death in High Heels (1941)

Heads You Lose (1941)

Green for Danger (1944)

Suddenly at His Residence a.k.a. The Crooked Wreath (1946)

Death of Jezebel (1948)

Cat and Mouse (1950)

London Particular a.k.a. Fog of Doubt (1952)

Tour de Force (1955)

A Ring of Roses (published under the pseudonym Mary Ann Ashe) (1977)

The Rose in Darkness (1979)

10 thoughts on “RE-BRANDING #4: The Housing Crisis – Suddenly at His Residence

  1. This is the first Brand I ever read after seeing Martin Edwards include it in his wonderful “The Story of Classic Crime in 100 books”. Having two impossible crimes was irresistible.

    Yes – it is imperfect for the reasons you state (e.g., drags in the second half, the resolution / reveal are a bit contrived). But I read this almost in one continuous go and enjoyed every bit of it. Brand is one of the best GAD authors at triggering empathy and at times sympathy from me for the characters she creates.

    Liked by 1 person

    • One of the things that mystery authors tend not to do is let you openly and deeply into their characters’ thoughts and feelings throughout the narrative. And why should they? The suspects all have secrets, and the detective doesn’t want the Watson or the reader to know what’s up his sleeve. (I think that’s one of the reasons friends of mine like JJ really love procedural detectives like French and Battle: as much as possible, they let you into their process and let you follow along more openly with their detection. But Brand is different: she takes you inside her characters’ minds throughout – which has the effect of binding us to those characters in such a way that we actually feel awful when one of them is revealed to be the killer – and still manages to surprise you in the end.

      Plus, Brand’s prose is really special. It sweeps me along in ways that Christie, my avowed favorite, never could. When I write about a Christie novel, it’s hard for me to include quotes of descriptions or insights; the former are always brief, and the latter are too woven into the context of a story to give me a lot of concise passages to work with. Brand is different: I could have dropped many more paragraphs into the above review: the humor of the ritual for Serafita or at the inquest, the funeral where the family feels like exhibits in a museum for the pleasure of the villagers (who actually pillage Sir Richard’s grave for souvenirs!!), a number of insights or witticisms that each character gives. Even if her puzzles don’t usually land as strongly as Christie’s or Carr’s, Brand provides a different and equally satisfying reading experience.

      Plus, I get a kick out of visualizing the killer tiptoeing across the sand on toe shoes to do the deed!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Great point on other GAD authors not allowing us as the reader into the minds of her characters for the reason you state.

        Your comment reminded me of a short chapter in the first part of Christie’s After the Funeral where a character shares what’s on that person’s mind without ever naming who that person is. Christie used a very different approach to let us into the mind of her culprit there.

        Liked by 1 person

        • How funny! At this very
          Minute I’m discussing Funeral on Twitter! I love the sequence you reference and how Christie counts on her readers to jump to conclusions!

          Like

  2. This was my second Brand, and I enjoyed it a great deal more than Green for Danger, not least that bombed out finale, which struck me as a very novel way to get your murderer to reveal themselves. For whatever flaws I could find in it, it reinforced in my mind just how well she was able to clue and obfuscate and — held in awe of Christie as I was at the time — this was a revelation of sorts that got me realising that other people could probably do this sort of thing quite well, too.

    And, twenty years later, here we are.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You know I loves me some Christie, but Brand knew her way around a clue just as well – when she wanted to – and, if not a better plotter than Agatha, she’s a much better writer. Her prose grips me, and her bag of tricks, while smaller than Christie’s or Carr’s or even your beloved Queen’s, is a rich collection. And yes, the bombing finale is entertaining, but it struck me as just a wee bit . . . convenient as a way to solve a lot of problems that, a moment earlier, had seemed insoluble. (Although I have to admit that Brand had paved the way for this to happen several times in the early parts of the novel.) Compare it, say, to the ending of one of your favorites, The Siamese Twin Mystery, where the killer simply won’t step forward and confess – until that damned forest fire literally lights a fire under their conscience!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. We agree almost completely on this one. While I can understand why you were disappointed with the bombing at the end, you must admit that it does produce an almost hallucinatory sequence of characters being trapped/escaping from a burning building. The way the sequence juggles the literal action with the psychological action (whodunit) is, quite frankly, awe-inspiring.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I don’t want no stinking Nazis helping me solve a mystery! But the sequence does all you say and is an effectively dramatic, if convenient, climax you the story.

      Like

  4. I have yet to read this Brand, but I’m really excited to. I think this has all the ingredients that I love when reading GAD fiction. Though I have a cheap mass market paperback copy, I’m really hoping the British Library has this up their sleeves, ready to re-issue it any day now.

    Liked by 1 person

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