With the British library Crime Classics range apparently achieving the impossible by arranging for Green for Danger (1944) and Death of Jezebel (1948) by Christianna Brand to be reprinted, the time seemed ripe to take her second novel Heads You Lose (1941) out of the shelf space that it recently started occupying and see how it stacks up.
Much to my surprise, this is the eighth novel of Brand’s that I’ve read — after Green for Danger (1944), Suddenly at His Residence, a.k.a. The Crooked Wreath (1946), Death of Jezebel (1948), Welcome to Danger, a.k.a. Danger Unlimited (1949), London Particular, a.k.a. Fog of Doubt (1952), Tour de Force (1955), and The Rose in Darkness (1979) — and I find myself at once familiar with her flaws (overly-facetious prose, a headache-inducing tendency to change character perspective) and triumphs (character relationships that make you ache, plot construction as solid as the Forth Bridge) yet still on something of an unfamiliar footing with her writing. Eight books into the likes of Agatha Christie or Freeman Wills Crofts I was profoundly confident of the sort of book I was getting, and yet — perhaps because Brand showed greater diversity within her mystery writing than she is credited with — I started Heads You Lose almost uncertain as to what I was going to read.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Brand’s second novel left me a little wanting. While there are definite glimmers of the quality that would mark out her later work — a deeply funny inquest chapter, superb minor character work with the likes of a romantically-minded housemaid, a gift with phonetic dialogue used largely incisively to inform character (“The ladies and gentlemen were in the droring-room and the servants they was in the servants’ ‘all.”) — this story of a double decapitation doesn’t quite catch fire. Brand’s talent undoubtedly lies in ingenious machinations that come together magnificently in a combination of events its generally hard to anticipate, so that you are left either sideswept, inconsolable, or staggered, or (oftentimes) all three. Here, come the end, I was decidedly “Oh, is that it?” rather than the “Oh! That’s it!” I was anticipating.
Another one of Brand’s almost textbook small casts — ten people, including the butler — gather in the house of Stephen Pendock, squire of all he surveys, where all manner of high emotion is running rife: Pendock clearly has feelings for twenty-something Francesca Hart, a state shared by James Nicholl and complicated by Pendock’s tenant, Grace Morland, who lives in a cottage on the grounds, having feelings for Pendock.
Francesca was only too free, only too free, thought Grace darkly, and so very, so painfully, pretty…with a generous mouth, generously smeared with scarlet lipstick, so that she looked like a tropical flower blooming in this English garden … If Grace were like a flower, it was a thoroughly British one, a bluebell that looked all right in a wood, but faded and drooped when you came up to it… And what chance had she against all this riot of colour and beauty, all this youth and life and gaiety that the Hart sisters carried with them in their shining eyes and eager, exquisite hands; what chance, at thirty-eight, what chance had Grace?
Brand, masterfully, brings this to a head early on with a ridiculous falling out over a ridiculous hat Fran has recently purchased, about which Grace avows she “wouldn’t be seen dead in a ditch in a thing like that!” before leaving in haste…only for the morning to bring the development that Grace’s beheaded body has been found in a ditch on the property, with Fran’s new hat wedged upon her separated head. It’s in the discovery of the body, about which there is only initially a confusion of identity, that Brand shows her raw ability with juggling moods in the manner of John Dickson Carr:
A mist like blood passed before his eyes; he closed them to shut out the horror of it, and falling at last on to his sagging knees, he started to crawl towards the horrible figure, going up close to it, flinging aside that frightful, that obscene gay hat; and pushing away the dark hair that hung, blood-clotted, across the face, he staggered to his feet and, at the side of the ditch, lay panting and vomiting till the world was still again.
Here we see why, despite her small output in the genre, Brand continues to command such respect among fans of the Golden Age. For all her frivolity and apparent lack of seriousness around murder, she writes from the gut where the base emotions of lust and fear are concerned, so that she’ll fill a tropey scene like as the discovery of a corpse with something tangible and earthy and horror-stricken. It helps that her characters manage to spring easily to life in front of you — whisper it, but I think she even bests Agatha Christie at this, mainly because Brand doesn’t use dissimilation to mislead but instead to give you people exactly as they are. Christie’s strength was in her genius at making the reader assume a character was something they are not, where Brand simply wants you to know these people inside and out, and builds quickly to establish sympathy and a connection with a corpse to be and its attendants.
Enter Inspector Cockrill — one thing I really cannot warm to in Brand is the way everyone calls him “Cockie” like they’re at some hilarious party rather than under a blanket of suspicion for murder — who must pick away at the bizarre crime scene and increasingly likely realisation that one of Pendock’s menage is likely responsible…despite the frequently aired hope that “[t]here’s another person mixed up in all this who hasn’t appeared yet, and once they turn up we’ll have nothing to worry about.” That need for the Outsider is often felt strongly because of the connection established elsewhere, and thankfully someone then enters the scene who likely fits the bill and doubtless has many reasons of their own for committing the murder…only for them to become the second victim of another beheading, this time achieved in the virgin snow so that not even the victim’s footprints are in evidence.
If that sounds like an impossible crime, it’s not. The explanation is obvious and suggested fairly soon thereafter in one of the countless scenes of people trying to make sense of the murders. These take various forms — at one point the suspects descend en masse to the scene to try out a method, with money wagered among them on its success or failure — including an entertaining adventure on behalf of one of the men in the house that Cockrill manages to deflate with glorious aplomb. The hope, the need to dismiss these “ghastly, shadowy suspicions” that gather around the household, is keenly felt, and allows Brand to play with various false solutions in a manner that she would later master without ever quite convincing here. It’s fun watching people flounder, but it serves only to prove how small the problem is, and how little information we’re really given about what’s going on.
Brand came late in the Golden Age, and so isn’t quite so beholden to its tropes as her peers might have felt. In his first case, Cockrill is far from a sympathetic or reassuring figure — neither brilliant enough to encourage confidence nor knowingly comical enough for these uptight English country types to be lulled into doubts about his capability that the murderer might then make a crucial mistake.
He looked round at their hostile faces and perceived that in his own fear and anxiety he was alienating their sympathy with him. “Now, don’t let’s quarrel,” he said pacifically. “We want to help each other; I’m here to help you. If the murderer isn’t one of your number, well, of course, we must find him; if he is one of you, we must find him just the same—mustn’t we?”
Equally, the wartime setting of this — one presumes contemporary to its publication, with its complaints about income tax and its talk of Dunkirk and evacuees who “had not been so thrilled since a bomb had fallen two doors away, at home, in dear old Whitechapel” — allows for a slightly more frank appraisal of marriage, sexual mores, and the expectations of succeeding generations. When a neglected wife tells her husband “that she could do with a few more conjugal rights”, or when one of the Bright Young Things observes drily that “elderly people never will believe that anyone can remain moral after eleven o’clock at night”, you feel the social strata shifting beneath you, and the genre’s characters running to keep up with the progressive attitudes on display. Divorce rears its head and it seen as a terrible thing by Fran’s grandmother Lady Hart, but the young ‘uns simply laugh it off, allow that everyone will make a mistake or two, and go about their day.
Even Brand’s treatment of anti-Semitism feels oddly developed. The sole Jewish character, Fran’s brother-in-law Henry Gold, is naturally possessed of money, but the barrage of unpleasant stereotypes and accusations often levelled at such characters, are addressed in the most fasincating way:
“Trust a Jew,” said Venetia, laughing. “He always does it. It only shows that it’s quite right when they say that the Jews have all the money and people like Henry are responsible for the War and Mussolini and the measles epidemic and the common cold and everything else that ever goes wrong with the world…”
In isolation this might seem a little odd, but it’s well-established that Venetia, Fran’s sister, is deeply in love with her husband and that this is at worst gentle raillery, an acknowledgement of the gross misdeeds done to the Jewish people in popular imagination. When the typically dry and unemotional Henry begins to crack a little later one, Venetia rebukes him by saying “Don’t get all Jewish and sentimental, darling…” and it feels sort of…revolutionary that the Jewish archetype is seen as open and caring when placed against the uptight, stiff-upper-lip British attitude of the era.
Come the end, then, things are looking up despite the relative brevity of the problems and the lack of any real progress in the investigation. And then the solution hits and…well, I didn’t love it. Some counter-accusation is there to muddy the water but, as I said above, none of it really convinces…hell, even the solution when finally settled upon doesn’t convince, not least because Brand hasn’t played fair and the roccoco touches that made the crimes interesting prove to be pretty much nothing. The puzzle plot was arguably at its most delightful when finding solid ground for apparently inconsequential trifles, where here Brand simply reveals a love of trifles for trifling’s sake. I’d also wager that the culprit is oddly easy to pick, given that it has to be one of three people and two of them are out for fairly obvious reasons, but your mileage will naturally vary.
So, all told, Heads You Lose does much that is pleasing and shows the hand of a very gifted wrangler of character and relationships at a formative stage of both her career and the genre as a whole. If it disappointed me in the closing stages, I can’t exactly dismiss it altogether because of the confident work Brand does elsewhere. And, of course, she would learn from this, and produce at least one masterpiece for all time in the years ahead. I’ll happily givie it a pass, even if I won’t be rhapsodising about it in the years ahead…and, to be honest, I’m more curious about what constitutes “a meat-tea” than I am worried about the flaws herein.
Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!: Among the elements that Brand includes are some threatening telephone calls to the Police, a lack of footprints in the snow around a body, a curious difference between the murders and false solutions. Those elements, coupled with the short page count, mean that the story chugs along at a good pace. Technically the virgin snow would constitute an impossibility though I would stress that it isn’t really a focus of the story.
Ben @ The Green Capsule: As complex of a puzzle that Brand presents to you, it’s all amazingly simple in hindsight. Everything really hinges on Brand’s key talent – allowing the reader (and characters) to make innate assumptions without realizing they’re doing so. Once the assumptions are dissolved, the revelations manifest on their own without Brand having to take you by the hand and explain it all.
Brad @ Ah, Sweet Mystery: It feels like, after delivering a pretty straightforward mystery in her debut, Christianna Brand is at a crossroads over what she wants to write: a murder mystery, or a novel of manners with murder included. If you’re reading this and you’re new to Brand, I absolutely promise that she will find a way to better balance her two writing impulses from here on in. Still, what we’re left with for most of this investigatory period is very little in the way of investigation. It’s quite delightful to read, but at the same time it can leave one frustrated if one picked up a book called Heads You Lose expecting to find a taut whodunnit.