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.
…and you realise they’re not friends at all: Sari doesn’t like Charley, Charley is just someone to gaze at her and find her fascinating and make her feel special and interesting and as fabulous as she thinks she is. Given the way this book ends — and the date of publication will give you a hint as to how much GAD you’ll find in here and how much bullshit psychology will replace the actual, y’know, detection and clewing — I’d almost be inclined to take this as a delicate hint on Brand’s part, but the fact is that she seems to be as swept up in the pomposity of Sari Morne’s petulant, childish existence as much as the satellites who sustain and perpetrate her.
In many ways, this book is an inversion of Fog of Doubt, a.k.a. London Particular (1952) because it’s gorgeously written but the characters make it unbearable. And that’s what makes it even more frustrating: it is gorgeously written. Brand’s gift for character is undimmed, and the lightness of her touch is unmatched. See the once-svelte Sofy who gained weight for a role and now must “stay fat because nowadays she only gets fat-girl parts, but there aren’t all that many fat-girl parts going; and she has to spend a fortune stuffing herself with food she can’t afford to keep herself in work she doesn’t get” — holy hell, Chesterton himself couldn’t have put it better! The opening chapter, in which Sari flees some undefined horror, swapping cars with a stranger on account of a fallen tree blocking the road they’re travelling in opposite directions on, is as atmospheric as anything from the best writers in any genre, and the little touches of personality and inconvenience that enrich chapter two, showing us some of the events leading up to that flight, are equally perfectly realised.
Indeed, up to the discovery of the body and the (inevitable, it must be said) surprise that closes chapter 5 this is a sterling, salutary piece of work which should form a perfect undergrid for a great battle to come. Alas, hapless pandering to modern mores then takes over, and the redacted form of the promised story we get is a disappointment purely because of how backgrounded Brand’s strengths become. Her characters are still vivid, the relationships linking Etho and Nan and Rufie and the others seared into the memory in a surprisingly brief number of words, but the decisions that make none of them likeable — so that even Charlesworth feels out of place, a holdover from a more innocent age when Brand wrote books you wanted to read — sink it for me. The entire thing is a waste, with the nature of the characters and the inevitability of their interactions robbing what few revelations there are of any surprise and sting.
The ending, then, and especially the image that closes the book, especially feels like a waste, because I can’t deny there’s a certain power there. But when the answer to your murder puzzle comes as fully out of stark nowhere as this one does, you at least want to have enjoyed the journey which brought you there. I didn’t. For anyone able to stomach this lot, a far better book might result: this is too late for me, with Brand evincing a Christie-esque inability to operate in her usual idiom while dragging her narrative into something like a contemporary milieu. Ah, well, you can’t win em all…
Ben @ The Green Capsule: Brand has maintained the knack for all of the talents that draw me to her books – the sharpness of wit, the vividness of character, that deft ability to weave clues into the story unnoticed, and the skill at flipping the reader’s expectations.Indeed, midway through the book I was certain that a series of revelations were absolutely inevitable, only for them to never even come to play.It’s a skill I’ve noticed in several of her other works – the ability to brush off a false solution without ever explicitly pointing it out to the reader.
Moira @ Clothes in Books: Brand (a great favourite round here) was by some standards past her best, and in this book her attempts to be up-to-date and modern only partially work – there is a lot about smoking cannabis, and an attempt to show a world of sexual freedom. The story is of Sari and her group of friends, and Brand is trying to show them as free-thinking, Bohemian, amusing. Sometimes this comes off, and other times it is wince-making, and racist. But her entertaining style is in full flow and the plot is quite splendid.
James Scott Byrnside: Although she’s my favorite author, I had resisted reading TRiD. The word was that after Tour De Force, she quit writing the genre she did better than anyone else. The wildly successful Nurse Matilda books, some biographies/historical fiction, and even a juvenile mystery called Welcome to Danger—I avoided them all, fearing horrible disappointment. Death In High Heels, Green For Danger, Suddenly At His Residence, Death of Jezebel, London Particular, and Tour De Force (Rewrite the ending of Heads You Lose and I’d include it) are the best times I’ve had reading murder mysteries. I’m so happy to add this one to the list.