Sixteen stories from Christianna Brand, who, thanks to the likes of the excellent Bodies from the Library (2018-present) series and the British Library Crime Classics range, has enjoyed something of a resurgence of late. So, how do these stack up?
The tales which comprise Buffet for Unwelcome Guests (1983) were written over a range of years, and were not necessarily intended to be collected and presented together; some of them are drawn from earlier collections, but I’ll not worry about that and instead just take each tale on its own rather than teasing out links ‘twixt them. And so, without further ado…
The first of four tales in this collection featuring her series sleuth Inspector Cockrill, ‘After the Event’, a.k.a. ‘Rabbit Out of a Hat’ (1958) is an excellent inverted mystery which has, since this anthology, been included in the British Library’s Final Acts (2022) collection. Rather than repeat myself here, I’ll simply provide a link to my thoughts on that collection and move right on. Wow, we’re making good time!
‘Blood Brothers’ (1965) is another inverted tale, narrated in a pleasingly acerbic tone (“People talk a lot of crap about identical twins.”) by the nameless half of a pair of identical brothers. When our narrator is involved in a hit-and-run while out with a woman whose affections he has directed his way, away from his brother Fred, and when Fred tells the narrator that the lady in question is pregnant (“And her husband hasn’t been going with her at all. On account of he’s been in prison for the past five months.”), well, a second murder is planned and carried out, bringing Cockrill into proceedings.
In a way this feels like a response to Stanley Ellin’s ‘Unreasonable Doubt’ (1958), since the brothers cook up a scheme that’s not dissimilar to the one explored in that excellent tale, but Brand also has a lovely twist up her sleeve, of course, and manages to throw the whole kit and caboodle into confusion before revealing all in a last line sting that’s as telling as it is awful and delightful. Only Jim Thompson made spending time with psychopaths as engaging as this, and Brand deserves huge credit for walking such a fine line so brazenly with such a despicable guide.
‘The Hornet’s Nest’, a.k.a. ‘Twist for Twist’ (1967) finds Cockrill at the wedding feast of an all-time bastard — the elderly, hideous Cyrus Caxton, who “had been horrid to his first wife and now was quite evidently going to be horrid to his second” — and finds himself called into action when the groom drops dead after taking a mouthful of dessert. But how could poison have been introduced so that the right person got it? And what are the “two brief sentences” that the reader is assured they’ve been made privy to which could “twist themselves about and about as to wind themselves at last into a rope. Into a noose”?
Not only is this story notable for its complete lack of sympathy for the victim — c.f. “with the going of Cyrus Caxton so much of ugliness, crudity, cruelty also had gone” — it also piles ingenious interpretation on top of ingenious interpretation, finding guilt in several places only to overturn each assumption before questing onwards to the next. The one flaw? The solution presented at the halfway stage is actually far more brilliant than the fairly mundane resolution we’re asked to accept come the end. Always a risk, this, and a shame Brand didn’t either cut this down to half its length or swap the answers to far more pleasing effect.
The final Cockrill story herein, ‘Poison in the Cup’ (1969) is another inverted mystery — Brand is very good at these, damn I wish she’d written about a hundred of them — in which doctor’s wife Stella Harrison must contend with a young nurse who has fallen in love with her husband and claims to be carrying his child:
For what if patients began to fall off, if poverty and struggle came to be added again, as in the old days of their building up of the practice, to the dreary round of surgeries and night calls and cancelled parties and always-arriving-late….I couldn’t face it, she thought; I couldn’t go back to the scraping and saving, the petty economies, the cheeky tradesmen, the little, niggling, mounting debts….But if this girl persisted in this charge of hers….
What’s especially enjoyable here is not so much the multiple solutions Brand hurls at you, but rather watching Stella invent new interpretations on the fly, turning her malice this way and that as the situation evolves, especially once she realises that Cockie is not the benevolent, friendly presence he initially presents as. And Cockrill’s acuity really comes through here, too (“Last night?”), where in the novels he can be something of a deliberately blank slate; it’s in seeing the man work, and the effect his changing faces have on the suspects, that really makes him so compelling.
Fans of radio drama might be ale to confirm or refute this, but I’m also pretty sure that this story is a reworking of Brand’s radio play ‘Sweet Death’ (1948) written for the Mystery Playhouse series, which was performed at the Bodies from the Library conference in 2019.
‘Murder Game’, a.k.a. ‘The Gemminy Crickets Case’ (1968) is another story of Brand’s I’ve looked at before, so will simply provide another link and skate right on. I reread it because I couldn’t remember the details, but I don’t think I have anything to add to my previous thoughts. Is this charming? Debonair? Poor planning? You decide!
Every short story collection has at least one dud, and the first one here is ‘The Scapegoat’ (1970), which has too layers in its many moving parts — a magician lamed in one leg, the assistant who supports him everywhere he goes, a shooting of the latter when they’re laying a cornerstone for a new hospital, the blaming of the policeman who was guarding the building from which the shot was fired when the shooter goes unapprehended, the policeman’s son who gather everyone years later to try and clear his father’s name, the horrible misheard dialogue clue — and starts in an annoyingly in medias res manner which makes it almost impossible to work out what’s going on for the first few pages.
This feels like Brand consciously writing A Christianna Brand Story, going through the motions of multiple interpretations — none of which convince — all the way to the painfully obvious ‘shock’ solution which carries zero weight because we’ve taken about three times longer than we should have done to get there. I feel like an unholy curmudgeon writing this, but, man, I really bloody hated this story, and feel it should serve as a warning to anyone wanting to write puzzle fiction: simplicity is key, and nothing here has about it the brilliant clarity of Brand, or the genre, when this sort of game is played well. Hoover up every single word of this, and then vow never to repeat its abominations upon the world.
Decidedly atypical in its form as a story of murder and the detection thereof, ‘No More A-Maying…’ (1974) was the point in the collection where I started to feel the strain of reading so much Brand in such proximity. Her writing is rather like cream: pleasing in its richness and moreish on account of how it satisfies, but consuming too much at once leaves you feeling a little sick. This Welsh-set story of a hippie commune caught up in the drowning of local simpleton Megan the Post is rich in detail and contains the obligatory One Amazing Description:
They called him [Christo] because he was so beautiful with his long face and scrappy golden beard like the face of the Christ imprinted on the sacred veil.
It has, however, far too many characters and jumps around rather too much in its perspectives to follow (the physical geography — of precisely zero consequence — made no sense to me). Brand does, however, write from the perspective of two six year-old children magnificently, and the final line, while not quite as devastating as it seems to think, is a pleasingly uncommon note for Brand to strike in her detective fiction. It has recently been reprinted in the British Library’s Crimes of Cymru [ss] (2023) collection.
By contrast, ‘The Niece from Scotland’ (1972) — billed here as ‘Something to Clear the Palate’ — is utterly charming, and shows Brand at her very best. Concerning the buttering up of Gladys, housekeeper for the rich and miserly Lady Blatchett, by a charming stranger who just happens to bump into her on two occasions and just happens to take a keen interest in the routines of the household and the locks on the doors, you’ll divine fairly early where this is going — and you’re right, and it’s completely lovely to watch it unfold.
And then the second half adds complication after complication, reframing people and motives in the most exquisitely Brandian fashion, all the way up to the clever double reversal that one always hopes is lingering at the end of tales of immoral people doing illegal things with such élan. This is a light, frothy story of almost illimitable charisma, and deserves to be far, far better know than it is; an absolute highlight not just of this collection but, I’m sure, of Brand’s career overall.
There is, in the best possible way, something of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected about ‘Hic Jacet…’ (1967), be it the efficiency with which Brand douses us with a thoroughly poisonous marriage, the clear-eyed simplicity of revelation of Gerald Fletcher-Store “[sitting] down to go on thinking out his plan to murder [his wife]”, or the twist ending which feels at once thoroughly unlikely and yet brilliantly fitting. Brand’s good on not tripping into obvious traps which would be old hat by now (“…could they tell if the water in the lungs was salt water or fresh?”) and her prose here is crisp in a way that can elude her when her stories expand beyond such brilliantly compact setups:
A man was not born to failure: surely it must be fair to say that it was bad luck that had made him one?
Punning in Latin, too; Dorothy L. Sayers would have approved.
The mind positively overflows with possibilities when someone of Brand’s talent comes up with a title like ‘The Merry-Go-Round’ (1968), and the resulting tale of scurrilous middle class suburban blackmail switches back and forth with delightful speed. As much as one should study ‘The Scapegoat’ to never repeat it, this story almost demands to be pored over by anyone wishing to write a breakneck volte face or two into their narratives. More than that I shall not say.
This is the last time I’ll do this today, but I’ve also encountered ‘Upon Reflection’ (1977) before when digging around for Brand stories; I did not reread it in this collection because I remember not being enamoured of it previously and thought I’d save time. You can, however, read my previous thoughts here.
For the longest time, I could not figure out which writer ‘From the Balcony…’ (1981) — in which we cut almost kaleidoscopically between a woman whose every moment is overlooked by a family living opposite and the Family (“with a capital F.”) themselves — reminded me of. There’s something mesmerising in the repetition of the same lines from different mouths, of the remorseless way Brand paints the hopelessness of the overlooked Jennings’ marriage…
“I thought you’d rather admire me,” she said, trying a little joke. “It’s a long time since I did that,” he said.
…of the way little victories are snatched away from Mrs. Jennings by her own husband and by the trenchant, unrelenting observation of her neighbours alike…something about it struck a chord, but I couldn’t place it. It’s not quite domestic suspense, it’s certainly not a tale of crime and detection, it doesn’t have the sharpness of my usual go-to Stanley Ellin, nor the playfulness of short-form Dorothy L. Sayers. There’s something not unlike a Cornell Woolrich nightmare about it, but a scouring of my shelves — probably while my neighbours watched, wondering what the hell I was doing — provided the answer: Philip K. Dick. ‘From the Balcony…’ is a Philip K. Dick story, and would fold perfectly into any of his collections. Which is weird, but I promise you it’s a perfect fit.
The last four tales are collected under the heading Black Coffee, and show Brand playing with the darker side of criminous schemes. And it’s to her credit that what many would take as the terminal point of ‘Bless This House’ (1970) is instead realised fairy early, allowing the eventual direction to come as more of a surprise. I’ll say no more about this, except that this once again strikes me as a very Roald Dahl-adjacent tale, though carried off with slightly more gumption than Dahl would allow.
‘Such a Nice Man’ (1972) is perhaps the shortest story in the collection, and veers for its brief duration into almost pure Suspense, the eponymous man calling at a house and…things developing from there. It’s not an especially Brandian tale, and fairly forgettable, but since it doesn’t hang around beyond its welcome I can’t criticise it too harshly.
By contrast, ‘The Whispering’ (1976) is simply vile. 16 year-old Daphne ‘Daffy’ Jones talks her 17 year-old cousin Simon into taking her to a rough dive bar where, while Simon is insensible on marijuana, Daffy is raped by one of the denizens. When she gets home, she tells her shocked parents that it was Simon who raped her and her father goes out and shoots Simon, and then has a heart attack in the dock when on trial as he realises that Daffy’s story is a lie.
Yes, that spoils the whole thing, but this is a grim, disgusting story that’s as cloth-eared about sexual abuse as it is disgustingly casual about throwing around such false allegations. Why on earth editors Nevins and Greenberg thought this was worthy of inclusion is beyond me, because it’s an odious stain on Brand’s career that should be ignored and forgotten. Yuck, yuck, yuck, yuck. Avoid.
Finally, ‘The Hand of God’ (1981) which, as befits its publication date, is rather more of a crime story than anything else. A man sees his daughter and granddaughter hit by a car and killed, yet it able to reassure the police at the scene that the driver was not at fault for the accident. From here…well, you’re better off finding out what happens for yourself, but there’s a lovely brief bit of explanation which casts this in a new light, and you have to appreciate the subtlety of Brand’s mind in coming up with this even if it’s not much to get excited about in the grand scheme of things.
Sixteen stories, fifteen of them worth reading. I typically pick a top five for long collections, and for Buffet for Unwelcome Guests they would be…
- ‘The Niece from Scotland’ (1972)
- ‘After the Event’, a.k.a. ‘Rabbit Out of a Hat’ (1958)
- ‘Poison in the Cup’ (1969)
- ‘The Merry-Go-Round’ (1968)
- ‘Hic Jacet…’ (1967)
This shows a clear preference for Brand’s, er, brand of ingenuity when it comes to springing thoroughly unexpected surprises upon the reader after delightfully tight setups unfold in unexpected ways, and we can consider ourselves very lucky that she came into the genre when she did and carried the puzzle plot’s traditions into its later years with such a verdant stripe of nimble mischief-making. Having not been that convinced when I first encountered her 15-some years ago, I’m delighted to call myself a fan today.
8 thoughts on “#1065: “Well, you know, I’m pretty hot on a murder puzzle…” – Buffet for Unwelcome Guests [ss] (1983) by Christianna Brand [ed. Francis M. Nevins, Jr. & Martin H. Greenberg]”
Hey, I liked The Scapegoat…
I do think that when taken as a lump like this, Brand can be a bit bleak. The short stories rarely give anyone a chance to be sympathetic.
S’alright, I never claim to have the final word on anything — you’re allowed to disagree with me, these are only my opinions…for what little they’re worth 🙂
Brand can be a bit bleak, but I’ve always been a fan of the opportunity for the short story to really reverse the reader’s expectations. She’s good at that, and notable among the classic detection firmament for playing with it perhaps a little more successfully than many of the names she’s mentioned in connection with.
More like Buffet for a Glutton, and I declare you the glutton for horking this down in a single go. I’ve hen pecked from this of the past few years, and each time it’s such a treat. I consciously don’t take too much in all at once because I imagine there’s something to be lost in the experience once you’re reading your eighth story in a row.
I haven’t read these in order, but the end result is that I’ve read the first five in the collection – the four Cockrills and Gemminy Cricket. That Gemminy Cricket may well be the lesser of these stories speaks to the amazing quality of that chunk of the collection, because Gemminy is an outstanding short story. Twist for Twist might be my favorite, with the story turning inside out repeatedly to stunning effect. Poison in the Cup sticks with me though, and is a favorite in a different way. On one hands it’s kind of a direct story for Brand, but it showcases the strength of her character writing as things fall apart and the story spirals out of control.
Oh, man, you’re bringing back memories of those halcyon days when I used to read for — what’s the word now…? — fun, as opposed to racing through things in the minimum possible time to satisfying the ravening beast that is this blog. In an ideal world I’d slowly and casually pick my way through books as I saw fit, like a poet of olde wandering in the garden and smelling flowers, constructing a rhyme or two when it suited me, but who wants to read a review of three out of 16 entries in a short story collection (although I remain convinced that virtually no-one reads this stuff anyway)?
There’s much here to enjoy, and I’m delighted that you have a copy and are enjoying dipping into it from time to time. Quite thrilling to see Tony Medawar mention on F*ceb**k that a new Brand collection is due from Crippen & Landru, too. Exciting times for the Brandians among us 🙂
As a non-active user of F*ceb**k, I was unaware of the news. Super excited to hear that!
Yes, I figured you would have missed the announcement — now to start haunting the C&L website until any news of this appears 🙂
Great review as always, but you didn’t need to tell me that! I’m a signed-on Brandista and this collection sounds just superb! I especially am surprised to find that her short fiction had such a proclivity for inverted mysteries… Since you’ve seemed to really enjoy these, I’m more than excited now to hear your thoughts on Furuhata Ninzaburou (*nudge nudge*) in the future.
Oh, god, yes — sorry, Furuhata Ninzaburou had completely skipped my mind with how busy I’ve been in real life. Man, so many mysteries…!