I was pretty much goaded into this, you should know. Ben at The Green Capsule is diversifying his blogging to extend beyond the works of John Dickson Carr, and the first book he chose was Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger. In the comments, conversation turned to other Brand titles and Brad had the temerity to doubt my fortitude: I don’t think JJ should read Tour de Force either. I couldn’t bear to think what he would make of it! Well, challenge accepted. Now, true, Brand and I didn’t get off to the best of starts — Green for Danger made her very much the new stepmother trying too hard to replace Agatha Christie in my affections — but we’ve had some great times since then, and so I came to this with an open mind.
Now, we mystery fans are a funny bunch. We enjoy nothing more than being thoroughly shanghaied, led a merry-old dance for 300 pages only for the rug on which we thought we’d just got a firm purchase to be swept away and a pit of vipers to be revealed beneath us. Nothing could be more entertaining, believe me. And with Brad’s horror of anticipation ringing in my ears I was all prepared for the stabbing of a member of a tourist party on an Italian island when no-one who was likely to have committed the act was out of the sight of series detective Inspector Cockrill (charmingly, Brand still christens him ‘Inspector’ even when on holiday) to dance the night away, and a staggering piece of chicanery to sideswipe me come the close.
And then, at pretty much the instant the crime was revealed, I put the book down, thought about it for approximately six seconds, and solved it. Now, Brand and I have previous on this and she’s outfoxed me three times before, so I read on. But the more I read, the more convinced I became. In fact, there’s nothing in the middle of the book that contributes in any way to either the false trails she lays (which are scattered at best) or provides any further obfuscation, and I found myself getting bored and increasingly convinced. And as nothing new came to life and one false solution followed another, I turned out to be about 90% correct. And, if I’m honest, I found this lack of real content all rather disappointing.
It’s a clever little puzzle, no doubt, but for an apparently staggering twisty development there’s really nothing too outré for anyone to swallow. And, really, there’s only one way it could have worked, which just sorts of screams at you. Am I missing something, or have I just read too much of this sort of thing? There’s nothing here more unbelievable than anything in The Problem of the Green Capsule, The Moai Island Puzzle, or The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and those novels aren’t themselves without moments where one could raise an eyebrow, scoff, and throw the thing aside. The solution here works, and I enjoyed it tremendously (even if one moment is a slight cheat…). And as a book, it is a lot of fun. If Ellery Queen’s The French Powder Mystery was the lumpy and craw-obstructing stew that started my week, this was very much the delightfully delicate turrón to close things out, even if such things are best enjoyed in smaller portions.
Brand’s slightly scatty prose style is perfectly suited to marshalling her troops at the start:
They were very much like the member of any other conducted tour: thirty of them — gay ones, jolly ones, vulgar ones; refined ones looking down upon the jolly ones and hoping they wouldn’t whip out funny hats and shame them at the advertised ‘first-class hotels’; inexperienced ones who never could make out whether you called this place Mill-an or Mil-ann, experienced ones who phased them all by calling it Milano and furthermore talking about Firenze and Venezia and pronouncing the island of San Juan el Pirata, San Hoowarne…
And from there we get a textbook lesson in sketching character relationships so effortlessly quickly — a shared confidence, a look, the movement of a head or an arm — against an archly-realised background of swims in the Mediterranean “sweetened by the sewers of Rapallo”, or the beautiful brevity of tone that captures a railing “already draped with the bathing impedimentia of the hotel guests”. Brand really does excel at atmosphere, and if some of her clues stick out a bit here and there, a few key moments manage to both hide important information and stick in the mind by languishing in the joy of mood joyfully communicated.
So I’m in a quandary. Even had I not solved this, I would have lost patience at the slowness of Brand’s gear changes, but the brazen way she lays her clues thick and fast at times — the unpicking of the first false solution is a doozy — can’t be dismissed. Her characters are a delight, I love Cockrill more with every moment I spend in his company, and the fairness of this is unquestionable…but the plot lacks the finesse and over-complexity that has marked out the other books of hers I’ve read. Brand gave up mystery writing for a long while after this, so maybe she was feeling the strain. Who knows? It’s good, it’s enjoyable, but it’s no staggering shocker. Those looking for viper-filled pits beneath their rugs need not apply…
Martin Edwards: Brand’s skill with plot was formidable. She isn’t too far behind Christie and Berkeley in that respect and I also gather that in person she was truly charismatic. To my mind, her short stories tend to be more satisfying than her novels, because they are punchier and the characters in them don’t have time to grate on the reader … but for now I’ll rank Tour De Force as well-constructed, but a long way short of a masterpiece.
John Norris @ Pretty Sinister: Just when you think Brand has exhausted her supply of possible murderers and presented us with the final solution she has one more trick up her sleeve. The finale is worthy of the best of John Dickson Carr or Agatha Christie. It’s a stunner. And it’s one that still adheres to the fair play rules. Astute and canny readers can spot the correct clues (and there are many) and arrive at the correct solution.