It has been quite a long time since I have read a book by Christianna Brand and I’m fairly sure this is my first time reviewing her on the blog. Based on her own work experiences at the time she set this, her first Inspector Charlesworth novel, in a dress shop. In the opening chapters the tensions and workplace politics that are going on in Christophe et cie are unfolded. Three of the staff are eagerly hoping for a promotion which would allow them to run a new branch of Frank Bevan’s dress making business. Understandably there is a lot of jealousy, backbiting, rivalry and grudges. Readers begin hedging their bets as to who is going to get bumped off and I think it is likely that most readers will be surprised by Brand’s choice of victim, whom is dispatched using oxalic acid. Inspector Charlesworth and Sergeant Bedd certainly have their work cut out for them. The victim might be unexpected but there are plenty of reasons for various staff members to want to see them dead. Furthermore, more avenues for investigation are created by the philandering nature of Frank Bevan who frequently chased after various members of staff. Inspector Charlesworth is definitely not an infallible sleuth and I was almost surprised that he did eventually solve the case, especially since he professionally compromised himself when he fell in love with one of the suspects. The reader can often see what errors of judgement he is making, as the reader invariably knows more about what is going on – not that this means I had any idea who did it and why.
Whilst this early effort by Brand does drag along, it does show promise, revealing her ability to craft an intricate mystery, giving the reader plenty of clues to be work with, yet still able to mystify and obscure the solution behind the crime. For me I think pacing was one of the main issues with the story, which comes through in the painfully slow dialogue at times, when characters are discussing and re-discussing the case and for me this impacted my appreciation of the solution when it was revealed. My other issue with this book was Inspector Charlesworth, as I found it hard to get on with him. He is rather full of his own abilities, even when he is making some rather rudimentary mistakes. Though this does allow for an amusing moment when Sergeant Bedd gets to best him during a discussion of the case. Moreover, Charlesworth’s evaluation of the female staff members at the shop was equally off putting, as was his rather tasteless jokes at the expense of the designer Cecil, who he and Sergeant Bedd don’t class as a “full man.” Also is it just me or is rather rude of Charlesworth to use the phrase ‘faggot’ when addressing some of the female staff members? I’m not sure if this word had a slightly different meaning 70 odd years ago, but it seemed a bit unprofessional nonetheless.
The female characters though are very well crafted, with plenty of unexpected facets. They do not necessarily endear sympathy though and I didn’t find myself rooting for any of them, though Victoria David and her artist husband were my favourites. Nevertheless I do think Brand gives an insightful portrayal into the lives of working women, be they married, single or widowed. Irene was of particular interest. From the way she talks you imagine her initially to be a much older woman, who would fit into the cast of Last of the Summer Wine quite well, especially with her stuffy attitudes towards artists, as ‘everybody knew what artists were’ like. Yet she is in fact only 30 and there is a rather bitter irony to her respectable circumstances:
‘Irene’s own husband had been a bird fancier; a steady enough occupation you would have thought, but one of his less attractive fancies had pecked him on the hand and, blood poisoning setting in, he had incontinently died, leaving Irene at twenty-five a widow and penniless.’
It was also interesting to see one of the suspects going through a divorce, as her custody over her daughter may be jeopardised if certain information gets out about her and this in turn adds to the central mystery. As well as Bevan having a long list of exes, his employee Miss Doon, is in a similar position. Yet she is not hugely castigated for this, which I felt gave Brand’s novel a more modern feel. In fact I would say Bevan receives more criticism, though none of it makes the slightest bit of difference to him. All of these problems or experiences give Brand’s characters a great deal of realism and light. In addition Brand’s range of female characters encompass different classes and backgrounds with women such as Rachel having to work out of necessity, whilst for Judy she is only a mannequin, according to her mother, out of a need for ‘what she imagines is independence’ and when a suitor comes calling, Judy’s mother has no qualms telling her workplace she is too sick to come in. One has to get one’s priorities right after all.
So whilst this has not been my best read by Brand, I wouldn’t discourage others from trying it. The mystery itself is clever and complex enough to keep you guessing to the end, but readers should expect a slower pace.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Blood stain
See also: Moira who writes the Clothes in Books blog has also reviewed this book here.