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.
“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?
‘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.
“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…