Death in High Heels (1941) by Christianna Brand

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 Image result for death in high heels christianna branddiscussion 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.

Rating: 3.75/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Blood stain

See also: Moira who writes the Clothes in Books blog has also reviewed this book here.

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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13 Responses to Death in High Heels (1941) by Christianna Brand

  1. JFW says:

    Thanks for the review. 🙂 I’ve always heard less-than-glowing reviews of ‘Death in High Heels’, so it’s good to know that it has a decent puzzle nevertheless. For Brand I’ve made the mistake of not leaving the best for the last, having already read ‘Death of Jezebel’, ‘Green for Danger’ and ‘Tour de Force’… Which means I’m reluctant to conclude my time with Brand with ‘Heads You Lose’ and ‘Death in High Heels’.

    Incidentally, Inspector Charlesworth was slightly annoying in ‘Death of Jezebel’. He spends more time preening and looking down on Inspector Cockeril instead of actually solving the case!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad I am not the only one who has found Charlesworth a bit irksome. Cockeril is much better. I think the puzzle in this one is good, but it is let down by Brand’s writing style which belabours it somewhat. I think this is something which improves as her writing career progressed.

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  2. Brad says:

    Obviously, Brand was getting her feet wet, and this one isn’t nearly as good as the rest. Plus, nobody tops Cockie as head sleuth! John, you did read the best, but I want you to know that Fog of Doubt is also quite good, and there’s one late title that nobody talks about called The Rose in Darkness. I read it years ago and loved the ending, although I can’t remember much about the story, including who the sleuth is. I have a dream of re-reading all of Brand one of these days, but it might have to be on some retirement cruise! Nevertheless, rest assured that there are some good titles left. It’s a shame that she didn’t produce more!

    Liked by 1 person

    • JFW says:

      I liked ‘Fog of Doubt’ – even though I managed to catch onto the resolution before Cockie revealed it. I confess to quite liking ‘Suddenly at His Residence’ too, which some bloggers seem to shy away from. I haven’t read ‘Rose in Darkness’ – will keep an eye out!

      I also wish that Brand produced more classic mystery novels… My local library has a copy of ‘Cat and Mouse’, which seems to blend gothic thriller with classic mystery. Will probably be reading it over this weekend. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • After my next review, I am planning on reviewing Suddenly at his Residence next, so glad you liked this one. And you’ll have to let me know how you get on with Cat and Mouse as I have not read that one yet.

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    • Yeah I think I prefer her other sleuth rather than Charlesworth. I have read Fog of Dog many years ago and I remember quite enjoying it. Like you I wish I had more time so I could keep reading new reads as well as do re-reads.

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  3. JJ says:

    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 — I gotta be honest, I think this is the one trope of GAD fiction that causes me the most irritation. I’m not a fan of withholding clues — someone making a telephone call, say, and we the reader being told that they “asked two questions and received the expected answers” only for this to be the key to the whole thing is irritating — but, dammit, I have had enough of sleuths falling helplessly in love with the Limpid-Eyed Maiden Who Has Fallen Under Suspicion.

    Possibly the only time it’s been used in a moderately interesting way was Carr’s Fire, Burn (1955) — you have to allow for the very particular set of circumstances for that novel, and it’s a really well-developed thread that pays off excellently. Elsewhere, it’s either a gossamer-thin attempt at misdirection because she’s guilty, or it’s an excuse to ramp up some “thrills” when she gets kidnapped by the villain towards the end (which is the one flaw in Max Afford’s Owl of Darkness).

    Anyway. I’m still at an early stage with Brand, but I can believe there’s a great variation in her output, and this sounds like one to push a little further back until some books that show her off in a better light have cemented a sense of what she does well. I maintain that nothing could be slower than her own Green for Danger — where all the sspects sit around after each crime discussing at great length how very possible it would have been for all of them to have done it, only for one to be plucked at random as the guilty party come the end — and if this risks echoes of that I can do without it for a little while longer!

    Liked by 1 person

    • JFW says:

      Hmmm. If you didn’t like ‘Green for Danger’, and wasn’t bowled over by ‘Death of Jezebel’ (I believe you gave it 4 stars?) – then I fear there isn’t much left of Brand for you to enjoy. 😦

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      • JJ says:

        I loved Death of Jezebel’s scheme, I just seem to remember feeling that it took place in a sereis of unrelated locations — there was no real sense of the proximity or relation of the important places to each other. But the clewing and the sheer chutzpah of the workings was an utter delight…so, y’know, I reckon Mary and I have a few miles in us yet (and Suddenly at His Residence/The Crooked Wreath was a good ol’ time, too)…

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    • I don’t remember Green for Danger being too slow, but then again it has been years since I read it and at the time I was also probably reading a lot of Mitchell and Marsh so Brand probably seemed quite pacey compared to some of their novels!

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      • JJ says:

        My memory is distinctly of there being lots of pace between events…but I could be wrong. Maybe ‘slow’ isn’t the right word, but I feel it lacked in incident and interest when compared to the two others of hers I’ve read. Either way, I think I’m due Tour de Force next…

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  4. Thanks for the shoutout Kate. Of course this book was ideal for my Clothes in Books theme, so I have a liking for it, but I can see its faults. I think in the end it’s the wonderful sociological and historical detail I like – I think it gives a fair picture of working in a dress-shop at the time (w/o murder of course).
    I re-read Rose in Darkness recently and agree with Brad – it’s a corker. It is bizarre and should be ridiculous but the ending redeems it… a very strange book, well worth reading.

    Liked by 1 person

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