Christianna Brand has long been one of my favourite mystery authors. She’s mostly forgotten now, remembered mainly for her Nurse Matilda stories which were adapted to make the recent Nanny McPhee films. But before that she wrote a series of exceptional mysteries, the most famous of which is probably Green For Danger, a tense and complex mystery set in a WWII hospital, which was itself adapted into a film starring Alastair Sim as her cantankerous detective Inspector Cockerill.
Brand’s books have a lot of the same charms as Christie’s but her characterisations are sharper and her plotting is twistier – one hallmark of her books is a parade of false solutions at the end, each one so different from the last and rattled off so quickly that it’s almost like watching a really good quick-change act. I find that even if I’ve solved the mystery and am familiar with the techniques she’s used in the construction, it’s no less impressive how she condenses everything into a taut finale.
A negative review of Brand’s Heads You Lose over at the always charming A Penguin A Week blog finally inspired me to complete my collection of the great lady’s mysteries. Which didn’t really seem like a dumb reason until I placed my order!
Heads You Lose is coming from America, so I’ll get to experience one of the great joys of ordering second hand books: forgetting you ordered it and then having it turn up months later as a wonderful surprise. But I also ordered a copy of Death in High Heels, Brand’s very first novel, and that arrived after only two days.
[Spoilers for Death in High Heels, The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side and The ABC Murders, but this is spoiler free until at least halfway through, so you should be able to read on if you’re careful. I’ll put another spoiler warning in when things get dicey]
Death in High Heels is Brand’s first book and it does show. The execution’s not so exhilarating and sometimes it’s downright clumsy. But a lot of the Brand magic is there. Doon, a young woman who works in an upscale London dress-shop, dies after accidentally ingesting oxalic acid, crystals of which two of her colleagues had bought earlier in the day from a chemists to try and clean a hat. Initially it’s written off as an accident, but suspicions are soon aroused. After all, Miss Doon knew that the crystals were poisonous, and there didn’t seem to be any way for a mix-up to have occurred. Slowly, it becomes clear that Doon has been murdered. And only the other employees at the shop would have had time to do it. The plot is a simple one, but it’s a deceptive simplicity. Like all of Brand’s books, the complications come from the shifting about of existing elements, not the constant introduction of new ones.
Which is just as well, because unfortunately I had a hard enough time keeping tracking of people. The main suspects and the victim are all women who work in the dress-shop, and they weren’t strongly delineated enough for me to keep track of them all. I suspect these characters have all been taken a bit too completely from the real world. Apparently Brand worked in a similar shop to the one in the book and wrote this as a non-violent way of dealing with a particularly annoying co-worker. Which is as good a way as any to write a first book – write what you know! – but I think a few of them could have been combined into a single suspect. They’re all obsessed with men, acid-tongued, and not very fastidious. When the murder happens, they all try to deal with it by being light-hearted to various degrees. The conformity is completely plausible, just not particularly conducive to enjoyment.
Inspector Charlesworth – her detective who shows up in a few other books, including the superlative Death of Jezebel – is less interesting and amusing than her other series regular, the grumpy Inspector Cockrill, and in this first outing he’s even more dull than usual. He (and every other character, to be fair) spends an inordinate of time making snide remarks about the obviously gay dressmaker Mr Cecil (who Brand inexplicably reused in her later mystery, the exemplary Tour de Force). I know, I know – it comes with the territory when you read these classic mysteries, along with the misogyny, anti-Semitism and racism. Anyway, that’s a topic for a different time. I’m not outraged (maybe I should be? Perhaps my privilege is showing? I certainly notice it more than I used to). Suffice it to say, I personally wouldn’t mind it if there were actual jokes. But here it’s just slightly grim padding.
The technical side of the writing has a few problems as well, especially at the beginning. Brand’s books often contain a lot of characters and she allows us access to the thoughts of most of them at some point during the story, but here she’s not quite got it under control. In some chapters the point of view switches so frequently and so erratically that it seems like it’s governed by Brownian motion.
SPOILERS STARTING NOW
But the puzzle-plot is solid. It’s heavily inspired by Christie, with its pharmaceutical overtones, lightly sketched characters and clues based on unusual idiom. The solution is even, superficially, a Christie classic: Inspector Charlesworth realises that the poisoned meal that Miss Doon ate was originally intended for Miss Gregory, a much disliked woman who turns out to be the murderer. So shades of The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side, and all the other times Christie tried to pull this off. (It really was one of her favourites!)
But it’s only a superficial similarity. In the Christie plots (and the many derivatives) things usually pan out like this:
Stage 1: The murderer is set up as the supposed victim early on, either through the use of fabricated threats or murder attempts or by establish a lot of motives to kill the murderer in quick succession.
Stage 2: Someone unexpected will be murdered. Often they will be not just unexpected in the sense that they’re different from the person who the reader supposed would die, but they will also be the sort of person who you wouldn’t expect to be murdered. “Inconsequential people” or otherwise peripheral characters are the usual choices (in the best version of this gambit I’ve seen the victim is a child). For added effect the victim and the murderer can seem to be completely unconnected, although this might cause problems with establishing a convincing motive later. The characters will be confused (however temporarily) by this turn of events.
Stage 3: It will then be suggested that a mistake has been made, and that the wrong victim has died. This usually happens immediately after stage 2. Often the detective will make this deduction, setting them up to feel remorse at their mistake later on.
Stage 4: The conclusions drawn in stage 3 will be accepted as fact and the investigation will proceed under the assumption that the murderer is still in danger. Often there will be another fake attempt on the murderer’s life to try and cement the idea that they were the intended victim. This usually takes up the majority of the plot. (If we take another step back from this idealised structure we see that it’s quite similar to the ABC murders gambit; only instead of concealing one true victim in amongst a number of similar victims, the killer conceals one true murder attempt in amongst a number of similar seeming murder attempts)
Stage 5: At the very end, the truth will be revealed.
What’s interesting is that while Death in High Heels does go through all these stages, the change in the pacing between them makes it feel like a very different sort of mystery. Here there’s no suggestion in the plot that Miss Gregory’s life is in danger, so we’re at the more allusive end of the possibilities for stage 1. The reader will think that she’s the intended victim, because they know it’s a murder mystery and all the other suspects seem to hate her – this hatred is the basis of much of the first three chapters. But there’s not much time to dwell on this because things very quickly proceed to stage two when Miss Doon dies (p 20). This happens so soon after the establishing of motives against Miss Gregory that I think a lot of readers will decide that they were simply mistaken to read that much into the early dialogue. Motives to kill Miss Gregory are now (very deliberately, I think) not mentioned again for a long time.
We’re now in stage 2. Miss Doon fits the bill for the Stage 2 victim here. She’s not inconsequential but she is unlikely: none of the characters can understand why she’s died. Unusually, we remain in stage 2 for most of the book.
Charlesworth doesn’t tumble to the idea that it was an accident and Miss Gregory was the intended victim until much later (p 162). For the next few chapters the investigation proceeds under this assumption. Of course it’s later contradicted when Charlesworth reveals the true solution. We pass through stages 3 – 5 in a matter of 30 pages.
The result of this change to the usual pacing is that it feels like a totally different sort of mystery. And a much better one, if potential for bafflement is one of your main criteria when judging them – I’ve never been fooled by the Mirror Crack’d way of doing things, but here I wasn’t totally sure of my solution until quite near the end.
It also manages to wring an extra surprise out the structure. With a Mirror Crack’d plot there’s one large surprise at stage 2, but the quick progression to stage 4 quickly nullifies this. Then there’s the (intended, at least) huge surprise when things get to stage 5.
In Death in High Heels Brand only gets a small surprise out of the unexpected victim, but she gets a return on this investment by getting a large surprise when things move to stage 3 and then also gets to cash in the usual huge surprise at stage 5. It also demonstrates how she liked to do things: even at this early stage she had the taste for piling up all the surprises at the end of her plots.
I don’t think it quite works, unfortunately. Charlesworth takes what seems like an artificially long time to stumble to the idea that Miss Gregory was the intended victim. He’s told half a dozen times that the plate that Miss Doon received was initially intended for Miss Gregory, but he doesn’t even bother to acknowledge it. Once it became obvious that Miss Doon wasn’t very murderable, I think he would have quickly reached the truth.
Brand’s clueing is sound and fair, but there are no humdingers like you’ll find in later books. There’s a nice Christie-esque idiom clue later on, where a faked suicide note contains the odd phrasing “I have made an end of my life”, a phrasing later used by Miss Gregory. But the main clue, the fact that Miss Gregory appears to take an impossible route through the dress-shop, indicating that she actually slipped out the back to buy some oxalic acid of her own, is hard to spot not because it’s well hidden, but because there’s never any clear sense of the layout of the shop. Spatial clues like these need a lot of description or a map to be truly successful.
There are other issues. Brand at this point also hasn’t quite worked out how to achieve constantly shifting suspicion without a lot of coincidences. How she gets this right is worth a post of its own, but suffice to say here she botches it a bit. Mr Cecil was supposed to have flushed the oxalic acid away (down the “huh-hah”, in what must be the most grating euphemism I’ve ever come across!) but actually he kept it for himself because he (coincidentally) wanted to pretend to commit suicide to chastise his boyfriend for leaving him.
Miss Irene Best (coincidentally) wants to make Miss Gregory ill so that she can nab her transfer to the new store in glamorous Deauville. She takes a few grains of the oxalic acid and adds it to Miss Gregory’s (which becomes Doon’s) plate. When Miss Doon dies Irene becomes convinced that she is responsible. Later she tries to commit suicide. That any of this happens is a complete coincidence.
During a party to try and cheer Irene up, the other girls suggest she takes some sleeping powder. It’s these powders which she uses in her suicide attempt, dissolving them in a glass of water. One of the other suspects, Miss Victoria, changes her mind about going home and returns to check on her. She (coincidentally) picks up Irene’s glass and leaves a fingerprint.
You get the idea. There are many more events like these, which happen only because Brand says they should and serve only to confuse things. They’re none of them implausible, taken individually, but taken together it’s a bit hard to swallow.
I’ll emphasise that this is par for the course in a lot of mystery novels. If coincidences get your goat then there are a lot of far worse offenders (I’ve got some good ones stored up from my post on coincidence in mysteries – I’ve found a few which are ostensibly set in the real world but, if their plots had actually happened, would easily have been the most unlikely confluence of events since the universe began. That’s not hyperbole.)
Of course you may not mind coincidence. I find that I’m able to put up with unlikely events proportionally with how ingenious the solution is. Death in High Heels isn’t ruined by coincidence, but it is surprising here because Brand would later become so good at avoiding coincidence in her plots. In her best books, events all stem naturally from an initial cause, and she made the best use of hypothetical situations that I’ve ever seen in mysteries. In her plots anyone could have done it, and lots of very different scenarios are outlined before the truth is reached, but in any given solution only one person (or concerted team) behaves suspiciously. This completely mitigates the coincidence factor.
Time to wrap this up. Death in High Heels isn’t a resounding success, but it’s an enjoyable read. And it’s interesting how changing up the pacing can revitalise even a very clichéd mystery structure. It’s also interesting to note that, even in her very first book, Brand was laying the groundwork for techniques she would use throughout her whole career as a mystery writer.