#553: Little Fictions – Curiosities from Adey: ‘Murder Game’, a.k.a. ‘The Gemminy Crickets Case’ (1968) and ‘Upon Reflection’ (1977) by Christianna Brand

Locked Room Murders

It’s undeniable that I have a slightly unusual relationship with some accepted classic GAD authors and do not necessarily always line up with the accepted wisdom where, say, Ngaio Marsh, Gladys Mitchell, Ellery Queen, and Dorothy L. Sayers are concerned.

None of the above are what I’d call actively bad — I very much enjoyed Marsh’s Death in a White Tie (1938) and Overture to Death (1939), Mitchell has her moments (mostly, in my experience, confined to Speedy Death (1929)), and you’ll find as much positive as negative on this blog about the other two.  But the author I feel I’m most misunderstood towards is Christianna Brand.

No, I didn’t enjoy Fog of Doubt, a.k.a. London Particular (1952), but a large part of that was because I was told before reading it how fair-play it was (it really isn’t — I’m sorry, there is simply no way to solve that murder from the information given).  When Green for Danger (1943) did very well in a poll of the best fair-play detection novels on this very site I raised the issue again of its fair-playing, citing my own sometimes-dodgy memory of events, and was politely put in my place.  And, perhaps most shockingly in the eyes of my readers, I still don’t see how anyone can be caught out by the mystery in Tour de Force (1955), especially since a) that one actually does play fair and b) there’s no way you overlook the clue is drops in that sort of situation.

But, well, I do so love Suddenly at His Residence, a.k.a. The Crooked Wreath (1947) and Death of Jezebel (1948) — for their characters and their brilliant use of psychology as much as their wonderful impossible crime puzzles.  Brand’s casts are usually wonderfully distinct people, and if the people ever blur then the relationships they enjoy distinguish them, and her use of atmosphere is, in the small amount of her stuff I’ve read, as compact and effective as is found in Carr and without his sometimes ghoulish over-reliance on garish melodrama (I’m looking at you, The Crooked Hinge (1938)…) that overcooks as many scenes as it enhances.  My dislike of Brand is, of anything, tempered more with discontent than anything because of how damn good she can be; when she falls short, it frustrates because she’s capable of so much better.

verycutepomeranianpuppiespics

“Oh, Jim, that’s beautiful…”

To date, I’d read just two of her short stories — ‘Cyanide in the Sun’ (1958) and, er, that one which was in EQMM a few years ago and wasn’t very good — and so, with Adey as my guide, here I am to delve deeper into this side of her writing.  Both ‘Murder Game’, a.k.a. ‘The Gemminy Crickets Case’ (1968) and ‘Upon Reflection’ (1977) can be found in the collection Buffet for Unwelcome Guests (1983), and thus there I went, and here we go…

‘Murder Game’ takes the form of a (fairly long) conversation between two men: young Giles Carberry, adopted son of the murdered lawyer Thomas Gemminy, and an older, unnamed man who delights in being told murder puzzles.  And so the two play Hunt the Murderer: “Tell me the outlines, tell it to me as the police will have got it, clues, bits of evidence — not necessarily the truth, you know, but as it came to them.  Let me work it out and see if I can beat them to it…”.  Gemminy had been found “in his office, bolts drawn inside the door, window broken — glass still vibrating: but four storeys up.  He’d been strangled and then tied to his chair and then stabbed.  The wound so fresh that it was still bleeding when the police broke in.  But nobody in the room!”.

Here, again, Brand excels with superb mood-work to set the tone perfectly:

Now that it had come, a sort of horror grew in Giles’ mind, a sort of sickness at the thought of going over it all again, of dragging Helen’s name again through the blood and the terror and the doubt…

Complicating this setup somewhat, there’s also the small matter of a second murder committed some time after the first: a policeman found tied up and stabbed in the same fashion as Thomas Gemminy, a policeman who had phoned the station in the small town just before his death in the same fashion as Thomas Gemminy, and had — exactly as Thomas Gemminy had — raved only semi-coherently about “vanishing into thin air” and adding with “a note of sheer, squealing terror something about ‘the long arms…'” and who was found stabbed with a paper knife missing from Thomas Gemminy’s desk…

This is a gorgeous tale, told with perhaps a little more repetition than is strictly necessary, but working in such enjoyable (if basic) variations on the possible solutions that it’s difficult not to enjoy yourself.  No, the eventual solution isn’t hugely original either, but the route taken to get there, in which we examine the possible motives and methods that unfurl from the imbrications of those involved in Thomas Gemminy’s life, each dismissed upon examination from one perspective or the other, is a beautiful tour through the byways of criminal deduction.

But the old man’s mind was in a sealed room, locked and bolted, where glass broke, a dying man was stabbed — and yet where no living man could have been; in a ‘phone box where a country-town policeman choked and yammered and presumably within a few moments also died.

And if the final line doesn’t get a graveyard chuckle out of you, well, then, seriously dude, what are you even doing here?

Buffets for Unwelcome Guests

‘Upon Reflection’ is…less successful, though it does demonstrate Brand’s enviable brevity when it comes to writing characters who live and breathe, even — or perhaps especially — if we’re not entirely sure we like them:

One of the Arab gentlemen, Mrs. Jones recognised as Sheik Horror-horror.  Well, she called him that to herself — one read these foreign names in the papers and never got around to actually pronouncing them.

This story sees Mrs. Dorinda Jones — “an ardent, if not very accurate, follower of the more sensational items of world news” — in a taxi alongside this wealthy, unscrupulous man’s limousine, and witnessing a second man sitting in the back alongside him.  When the limousine reaches its destination, the sheik has been stabbed and his companion is missing; suspicion initially falls on his chauffeur for the crime, but given that the car “was on the V.I.P. pattern, with glass cutting off the driver’s seat from the driven” and that Mrs. Jones “knows everyone” and is able to phone a “very grand person at Scotland Yard” to tell of what she saw, soon the hunt for this mysterious, vanishing personage is on.

I’m not entirely sure this qualifies as an impossibility, to be honest, but I can see how it falls into that sort of midway space occupied by the likes of The Rynox Mystery (1930) by Philip MacDonald in that the revelations that ensue have about them a whiff of the sort of thing one sees in an impossible crime (hmmm, how about a talk at Bodies from the Library 2020 entitled ‘The Ten Types of Almost Impossible Crime’…?).  There’s undoubtedly a sort of flair here that it feels churlish to deny a seat at the table of the Grandest Game in the World, but strictly speaking this is simply a nice problem with a sort of Chestertonian ‘The Man in the Passage’ (1914) vibe.  And while the solution doesn’t exactly surprise you, what is surprising is how badly Brand fumbles it.

I’ve thought about this, and the best example I can give is that it’s like going to a stand-up comedy show where the comedian is wringing much laughter out of those sort of observational peccadilloes that don’t quite ring true to you and you alone.  That sort of smugly oleaginous material Michael MacIntyre trades in — something about how everyone owns a wonky spoon or how lightbulbs are like pets or something: everyone else is rocking with aggressively self-preserving mirth, and you’re sitting there going “Yeah, no, that’s not really what it’s like though…”.  That’s what Brand tries to pull here, I feel — nodding at you and smiling to encourage you to agree it would work, but instead simply drawing attention to how that just doesn’t seem to line up in the way she says.

verycutepomeranianpuppiespics

“A wonky spoon?”

This pairing, then, is my experience of Brand in a nutshell.  ‘Murder Game’ is gloriously enjoyable, and the kind of story that makes you immediately want to rush out and find everything the author contributed to the genre — the setup is hard to forget, the structure intricate yet memorable, the payoff balanced to perfection.  ‘Upon Reflection’ would be something that, as your first exposure to Brand after hearing someone rave about her, would make you question the validity of the opinions of that person forever more — a nice idea, perhaps over-reaching itself, and indicative of someone whose promise never really came to fruition.  And, in honesty, that’s the Brand I know from the four novels I’ve read: frustratingly just short of consistent greatness, yet obviously capable of more than holding her own against all-comers when she rises to the challenge this genre presents.

Expect my thoughts on the rest of this collection…at some point.  I’m decidedly more heartened by the first story than I am discouraged by the second, and the quality of the prose here far outstrips the faults in its contents.  Plus, Ben’s already convinced me that I need to read The Rose in Darkness (1979), so I’m a long, long way from finished with Christianna Brand yet…

35 thoughts on “#553: Little Fictions – Curiosities from Adey: ‘Murder Game’, a.k.a. ‘The Gemminy Crickets Case’ (1968) and ‘Upon Reflection’ (1977) by Christianna Brand

  1. Funny timing – I just obtained Buffet for Unwelcome Guests two weeks ago (extremely hard to get your hands on btw; excellent bibliography in the back) and was determined to read Twist for Twist (aka The Hornet’s Nest) and The Gemminy Crickets Case. Of course, I just read A Ring of Roses (excellent, btw), and I have to pace my Brand out.

    I think that Brand is such a talented writer that I’d eat up her stories even if they didn’t feature a mystery. I’ll go to my grave loving Fog of Doubt, fair play be damned! However, I do get where Brand could smugly fall flat – her extra solution to The Poisoned Chocolates Case was dreadful and completely out of the realm of what I expect from her.

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    • Her Poisoned Chocolates Case solutions wasn’t really all that interesting, it has to be said. It’s not even really a *new* solution, since it just recasts one element of things in a new light…and, it seems to me, there’s still another solution available if anyone wants to add to it for, I dunno, the 100th anniversary…

      No doubt she’s a very talented writer, and no-one is perfect all the time — we can all cite something by an author we love that gives us shudders (I’m very aware that my first actively bad Crofts novel is still out there in my future, waiting to ambush me) but class is permanent and form temporary, as the saying goes. On the evidence of these two, I’m interested to read the remaining stories in this collection, and on the back of these I’d definitely check out her novels if I hadn’t already.

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        • Martin Edwards’ solution was very clever, and written in the perfect tone, matching Berkeley note-for-note. I’m hoping, come the 100th anniversary of TPCC in 10 years from now I’m famous enough to be asked to do the same thing 🙂 Until then, I’ll keep my cards close to my chest…

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          • I did enjoy Edwards’ solution. From the tone, it struck me that he had just finished reading the novel and immediately wrote that chapter. It flowed perfectly. Brand’s chapter felt like she recalled the basics of a novel that she had read in the past and then wrote an additional solution. She just didn’t capture the essence of the narrative.

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            • I wonder how fully realised the idea of a pastiche was at the time of Brand’s writing that solution. The thinking on someone’s part – either Brand’s or the commissioning editor’s — could well have been that if you’re asking Christianna Brand to write a new donouement then, well, you want it to have a touch of Christianna Brand about it, and so it’s deliberately, or at least consciously, of a different tone.

              The idea of extension-as-mimesis — of wanting a work to be continued in the original author’s voice — feels to my mind like a fairly modern idea. The only reason you’d hide behind another author’s style back in 1979 could well have been because you were ghostwriting for them on the sly. But when people knew who was writing something, there was an expectation that the new author’s fingerprints be found on the work.

              In recent times — see Anthony Horowitz’s work adding to the Holmes and Bond canons, or the new Campion books, or the new Jeeves and Wooster — there’s more of an expectation that such continuations be in the tone of the creator. So Martin Edwards was writing his solution with a slightly different intent to Brand’s, deliberately emulating Berkeley rather than putting the Martin Edwards Stamp all over it.

              Dunno, it’s just an idea; what’s anyone think?

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            • I think you nailed it.

              As I mentioned in my review, I made the mistake of finishing the book and immediately reading the extra solutions. I would much more suggest that someone let the core book digest in their mind for a day, as it is masterful. However, my mistake revealed just how jarring the transition was into Brand’s style, and that may have lent a bit to the bad taste in my mouth.

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            • On the topic of additional/unused solutions, I’m never sure what the best way to read The Floating Admiral (1931) first time is. From chapter 3 onwards, everyone provides a solution, but the actual solution is Berkeley’s in the final chapter — so do you read the whole book, then go and pick through the solutions of each author (having potentially forgotten what had happened by their chapter, plus some of them are goshdarned complex), or do you read the chapter and then the solution before going any further, and end up with a confusing mix of what was in the actual plot and what was simply suggested but never canon?

              I did the second one, and to this day am still not entirely sure what actually happens in that book…. 😆

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          • Martin Edwards’ solution matched Berkeley so well he came up with a solution I was sure Berkeley was either going to use or reveal as false, so I think he actually out-Berkeleyed Berkeley there.

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            • Yeah, Edwards’ culprit was someone I honestly thought Berkeley was going to finger at some point when I read the book for the first time, too. No doubt Martin did a better job than I would have, however… 🙂

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  2. I feel quite the same way about Brand as you do. I haven’t read all of her ouvere but she is yet to impress me as a truly great author. While her books are always well-written, her puzzles have mostly disappointed me.

    “You’ll find as much positive as negative on this blog about the other two”
    Really? Even about Queen? What have I missed?

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    • Really? Even about Queen? What have I missed?

      Oh, nothing — that was a complete bluff on my part that I was sure no-one would pick up on 😉

      Brand’s prose is generally very readable — even in her YA novel, Welcome to Danger — but I wonder how fully sold she was on puzzle or detection elements in her work: the breadth of her output implies to me she was a dabbler who, through sheer intelligence, was able to produce some absolute belters not quite by accident but without ever really intending to be viewed as that sort of author (cf. Nurse Matilda, etc).

      I’ll return to Brand soon, I reckon. Though “soon” is an increasingly uncertain phrase in my vernacular…

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  3. I haven’t read “Upon Reflection”, but “Gemminy” is indeed a very, very fine tale.

    My view on Brand is more or less the same as yours, an incredibly good writer when firing on all cylinders, but prone to stuff that either falls flat or simply isn’t all that interesting to me (the novel “The Honey Harlot” or the short story “The Whispering” to name but a few).

    Just earlier today, I finished translating “Cyanide in the Sun”, which you refer to above. While that has a fine impossible problem with an equally fine solution, there are some problems with it that I just noticed while translating it: it has several loose ends that it never explains. For example, what is Hugo Raie’s deal? Brand gives him several suspicious traits, and they are simply never explained at all. And what’s that legal document that Sharon Jones keeps in her drawer?

    Easily forgotten about when you’re just reading along and get bamboozled by the explanation to the impossible murder, but stands out when you’re reading more carefully in order to translate the whole thing…

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    • Interesting point. I wonder if reading in a non-native tongue highlights the problems and shortfalls in plotting to a greater extent. I imagine it’s still something of an effort even for the most fluent bi-linguists (hell, some English prose is virtually impenetrable, so there’s no reason to assume all foreign-language prose is sleek and wonderful) — and once you have to fight a bit more to extract meaning, those little victories hang about in the mind for longer. One is, I imagine, more likely to notice, therefore, when they’re not picked up or resolved.

      Brand, I feel, might be a bit like James Ronald — conversant and active in a range of genres, so sometimes aspects of one will bleed into another (how often we see someone pulpy lapse into tropes in their detection fiction, or an SF writer veer towards the uncanny in “straight” writing…). The extent to which she controls that may, I’d wager, determine how successful we purists in whatever genre deem that attempt to be,..

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  4. “Murder Game” is truly superb. I’m glad you enjoyed it. “Upon Reflection” isn’t included in any of my 3 collections of her short stories. I’ll have to see about getting that one. That’s the problem with short story collections. You often already have half of them in another compilation.
    Brand’s short stories with Cockrill are fantastic. I’d recommend “Blood Brothers”, “Poison in the Cup” and “The Hornet’s Nest” although none of them feature impossible crimes.
    I haven’t read many reactions to her first two books. “Heads You Lose” reads like it wasn’t thought out very well. However, “Death in High Heels” is a wickedly funny and entertaining whodunnit. I’d rank it with Christie’s best.

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    • That’s the problem with short story collections. You often already have half of them in another compilation.

      Also The Smiths’ albums — love that band though I do, sometimes I still get taken aback by how much repetition there is across their discography. Not that I’m veering off-topic or anything.

      I feel, on this very small data set, that the short story feels like a natural metier for Brand — she has that waspish turn of phrase, and the ability to spin everything on a dime, which short story writing rewards. The radio play that was performed at Bodies form the Library this year was one of hers — ‘Sweet Death’, I want to say — and the timing and placement of each revelation and character beat was supremely entertaining. So, rest assured, I shall be digging into more of he short fiction in future.

      I’ve never heard Death in High Heels spoken about in such laudatory terms, you’ve piqued my interest. I have a copy of The Rose in Darkness, which Ben raved about, and I’m intending to go there next with Brand, but I’ll queue up DiHH afterwards as my next next one — much appreciated.

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      • Also The Smiths’ albums — love that band though I do, sometimes I still get taken aback by how much repetition there is across their discography. Not that I’m veering off-topic or anything.

        Perpetrating the off-topicness: There’s not that much repetition – it’s mainly between the three B-sides collections (of which one hardly counts since it’s American while the other two are from the UK) where you’ll find repetition. The four main albums are all seperate and do not duplicate tracks between them.

        The repetition looks worse because they chose to include BBC versions of their songs (on those B-sides collections), but obviously that’s not the same track as the studio version.

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        • Oh, sure, I was being slightly facetious. Apologies, I should have included my usual fourteen emojis (emojii?) to make that clear…

          A contemporary band of The Smiths’, and not miles away in tone and focus, who have the same sort of repetition across live albums and b-side collections and studio LPs is The Sound…but they’re equally wonderful and just as sorely missed. Check out their first album, Jeopardy, since we’re talking about music now…

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    • “I’d rank [‘Death in High Heels’] with Christie’s best.”

      Ha. I consider myself a big fan of Brand and not really a fan of Christie (while admitting Christie’s talent for misdirection), but I’m surprised at that statement. I’m curious to know the things that make you place High Heels so highly.

      It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I remember the cast was less colorful than her later books. Found it hard to tell the women apart (and to visualize their crime scene movements). And while some elements of the solution were clever, the solution ultimately didn’t dazzle me like some of her later ones. Maybe I was just disappointed coming off from her much better later books.

      Though, maybe her genius was indeed present in High Heels, but more subtly. I remember that Rich from the blog Complete Disregard analyzed the book, and showed that although the structure of the mystery uses a well-tread template, it played with that template to hide the killer better.

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      • I consider myself a big fan of Brand and not really a fan of Christie

        Good grief, I didn’t know such people existed! How delightful — welcome to the fold!

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      • “Death in High Heels” is a whodunit through and through so I don’t judge it in terms of impossible crime. Character becomes far more important. One of the things I most appreciate about Brand is the malice she can show toward the characters. Much is made of her empathy, but there’s an equal amount of disgust – she wrote it so beautifully there’s no sour aftertaste. She worked in a shop much like that in DIHH, and the feelings she had for her co-workers made the killer’s anonymity a source of ever-growing tension. I thought the multiple solutions at the end (another Brand specialty) were well handled. The dynamic between the female characters rang true to me. I didn’t have your problem telling the women apart. It’s certainly not one of her masterpieces, but I think it’s hugely enjoyable.

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        • @JJ
          Thanks. I’ve been following this circle of mystery blogs quietly since early 2018. Having opinions like this (re: Brand > Christie) is what makes me fear for my safety if I were to speak in public :p

          @jamesscottbyrnside
          Thanks for the response. I’d thought that your comparison with Christie was based more heavily on the strength of the mystery, but I see now that you were referring more to the overall package (as a hugely enjoyable book). I agree that Brand’s characters can be venomous towards one another without it being too heavy-handed or distasteful. (I recall echoes of that in Heads You Lose and Death of Jezebel.) I should reread High Heels sometime. Brand really is a charming writer.
          BTW, I have Goodnight Irene sitting in my kindle library. I’ll try to get to it one of those days. I’ve heard nothing but good stuff

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          • Having opinions like this…makes me fear for my safety if I were to speak in public

            Heh. Some people around here don’t rate Ellery Queen all that highly, and they’re excluded like the losers they clearly are 🙂 but I reckon anything else goes. Fandom is a broad church, y’know? We need a range of opinions, otherwise it’s just an echo-chamber and we end up with Brexit all over again…

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  5. …on this very site I raised the issue again of its fair-playing, citing my own sometimes-dodgy memory of events, and was politely put in my place.

    Don’t forget your uncanny knack to even miss clues that were handed out like freebies. 😉

    “Murder Game” is a very well-written and finely plotted impossible crime story, but I think it never truly achieved classic status, among us locked room mystery fans, on account of the patchwork solution stitched together from some very old tricks. But after reading the comments here, I suspect the reputation of “Murder Game” is in for an upgrade!

    You should consider doing a “Spoiler Warning” collaboration with Nick Fuller. And with collaboration, I mean Nick will sit you down to lecture you on the Great Gladys, like it’s the mid-2000s all over again.

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    • I try to be as open-minded as possible in life generally, and especially with respect to books and reading, but there’s honestly nothing that would get me to pick up a Gladys Mitchell novel again. Plenty of people love her, and good luck to every single on of ’em, but she makes the seconds of my life bleed dry with hopelessness and I simply do not want to waste that reading time.

      I imagine ‘Murder Game’ suffers a little because the solution isn’t the most original — indeed, it’s possible to see it coming from quite a way off — which is a shame, because the focus of that story really isn’t the solution to the impossible crime. I can imagine someone looking it up in Adey, seeing the answer to the locked room riddle, and dismissing it as something they don’t need to read. But they’d be missing out, it’s a very enjoyable time, and that final line is a great way to finish.

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      • I imagine ‘Murder Game’ suffers a little because the solution isn’t the most original — indeed, it’s possible to see it coming from quite a way off — which is a shame, because the focus of that story really isn’t the solution to the impossible crime.

        You have point there. However, when a detective story has an impossible crime, it will inevitable judged by standards of that popular sub-genre, which can be either a blessing or a curse.

        And everyone who looks up the solution in Adey before reading the story deserves to be disappointed. I only glance at that section after finishing a book or short story to see if Adey had any additional comments to the solution.

        I’m also a little disappointed you would say no to a Gladys Mitchell collaboration with Nick.

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        • This is why i was so annoyed when someone looked up the solution to The Hollow Man after I gave them a brief rundown of the plot — these things need to be experienced; looking up the answer is akin to simply waiting to find out the result of a sporting competition without ever watching any of the game.

          The handful of time I’ve looked up something in Adey without reading the story first are when it’s a book I have no intention of reading thanks to previous bad experience with that author (Sjowall & Wahloo’s The Locked Room, for instance). in those cases, that’s a sport I’ve no interest in watching played out 🙂

          And, just to be clear, it’s very much the “Gladys Michell” I’m saying no to rather than the “with Nick” — I’d say no to a Gladys Mitchell collaboration with anyone. Life’s too short, Gladys and I have taken different roads and ne’er the twain shall meet.

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    • Good to know in advance that the impossibility evaporates to nothing — not that I can’t enjoy a minor impossibility, but knowing what you’re getting can be quite helpful sometimes. I’ll absolutely queue this one up, as I’m eager to read more of her…it’s just a matter of time, books, work, sleep, food, and any other trivial matters that crop up unexpectedly 🙂

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    • Heads You Lose has lots of great stuff (besides the title) but the reveal of the mystery was badly botched. This was about the fifth or sixth of her books that I read, and I was shocked at how poorly she handled it. The setting is great. That last murder (I think – the phone call in the hallway? I have to read it again) was wonderful. It gave me that Sunday afternoon/murder mystery on television kind of joy. But then the end ruined the book for me.

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      • I’ve avoided HYL in part on account of the Pugmire comment quoted in that review @ GADetection. And also because I’ve never found a copy of it, which is perhaps the more compelling reason. But if I get on a Brand kick, I’ll be sure to track it down.

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        • Heads, You Lose is another one of those mysteries that used to be universally disliked, but has gotten some positive reevaluation over the past few years. Most notably Kate’s review who awarded it with a four-star rating! I read Heads, You Lose after Green for Danger and it was as if they written by two completely different writers. At the time, I thought it was the shoddy Dutch translation (read Green for Danger in English), but reviews and comments at the time alligned with my impression.

          One of these days, I have to reread Heads, You Lose in English. However, after James’ praise for Death in High Heels, I’ll have to take a look at that one first.

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  6. The alternate title for Murder Game makes me imagine a murderer tossing a knife into the air and slamming it with a cricket bat across the street in through the window with pin-point accuracy like a certain John Dickson Carr solution – but it can’t be that, right?

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    • Hey, no spoilers on this site unless a) flagged up well in advance, or b) the book annoys me beyond the desire to protect its horrible bullshit. Neither is the case here, so the only option is to read it for yourself and find out!

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