I don’t think I’ve ever disliked the cast of a novel as much as I disliked the core group of The Rose in Darkness (1979) by Christianna Brand. Goddamn, what a bunch of self-centred, self-congratulatory, self-satisfied, smug, pretentious, vacuous, condescending, poseur, low-rent hipster prigs. You say ‘bohemian’, I say ‘unbearable’ — were people really like this in the Seventies? And, because Brand does her usual thing of telling you up front that there’s one victim and one killer, you know that once the body turns up you’re stuck with the rest of them until the end. Good heavens, there’s never a serial killer around when you need one.
As with most of Brand’s work, the story here revolves around a tight-knit group into which murder insinuates itself, and then things become rather muddied by who was where when, the lies most of them are willing to tell, and the relationships that get challenged and reversed along the way. This a familiar furrow for Brand and, for the most part, the people involved work as sympathetic portraits of any one of a number of general types placed under unimaginable stress while also dealing with people they’re very close to and must necessarily suspect. It’s a well-worked seam in mystery fiction, and Brand, while falling down in other regards, doubtless returned to it so frequently because, frankly, she worked it better than most. Except now, nearing the end of her career, she’s moved on with the times to introduce the Bright Young Things of the 1970s and has failed to notice that the people of Brand’s 1970s seem to lack any redeeming features at all.
How do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways…
First up, the casual racism so readily accepted in the era is massively uncomfortable — “I can’t be doing with these Paks, their nails so pale at the ends of their fingers!” might be a deliberate piece of character unpleasantness, but the cloth-eared admiration of “They do put their hearts into [studying], these black chaps, don’t they? You’ve got to respect them” offered up by Chief Inspector Charlesworth is awkward and wrong is so many ways — but, as I’ve said before, we must always remember that times have not been so enlightened (though, it may be argued with an eye on recent world events, that times now aren’t even all that enlightened). And, sure, while by my own argument it’s possibly wrong to hold this against the book, given that Brand tries to be even-handed about it, the utter “down with the kids” attitude adopted is — despite the admirably cosmopolitan attitude taken towards homosexuality — the equivalent of virtue signalling and feels about as comfortable.
Secondly, another odd writing choice of Brand’s, is the way phonetic rendering of certain words will turn up again and again: “dellycatessing” and “chicking sangwidges” and “restrong” and “ap-solutely” — it’s possibly how people might speak, but added to the self-satisfaction of everyone involved it comes across as horribly false and cutesy. Then, thirdly, you add to this the brilliance with which one-time movie star Sari Morne views herself and everyone of her Eight Best Friends, and you find you’re just stuck in a book of dullards whose author thinks they’re charming and free-spirited and young and wonderful. But when Sari herself characterises one of her friends thus:
[Charley] was in fact an intensely boring young man; but they loved him because never, never, never was he bored himself, so deeply and devotedly was he interested in all that concerned these wonderful people among whom..he had found himself a place.