So this week there is not just one review from Christianna Brand’s work, but two! This one is the classic country house murder mystery, set during World War 2. We are even given a family tree and told that out of the 10 people mentioned, 2 will die at the hands of one of the others. But which one will it be?
As you would expect there is the dictator like patriarch, Sir Richard March, and every year the anniversary of his first wife’s death is commemorated, with his four grown up grandchildren, Petra, Claire and Philip and Edward playing key parts in the event. It should be mentioned that the first three of these grandchildren all came from his children from his first wife (now all dead or moved far away), whereas Edward descended from the daughter Richard had with his second wife, who had also been his mistress whilst his first wife was still around. To round out the family gathering there is Philip’s wife Ellen and their baby daughter Antonia, though their marriage is far from strong given that Philip is openly in love with Claire.
Unsurprisingly Richard’s elder grandchildren annoy him so much during the occasion that he threatens to disinherit them and leave his property and money to his second wife, Bella and then on to Edward. Thoroughly disgruntled he goes to stay in the lodge alone that night. The lodge is surrounded by dense rose bushes and has one sand path. It is the lodge his first wife died in and has become a shrine ever since. He spends his time writing a new will. Yet the next morning he is found dead and the new will he was supposed to have been writing has disappeared. Foul play is soon cried when Philip, a doctor, finds his medical bag has been rifled, with Richard’s medicine and a phial of strychnine gone missing. Enter Inspector Cockerill…
Suspects of course abound. Philip and Claire come under suspicion being the first ones on the scene and the money they would have got from the old will could have meant Philip could afford to divorce Ellen. There is also Edward. When he was a child his parents were drowned. Though he says he saw this happen, he never did. But that did not stop him from using the incident to manipulate those around him and to avoid doing anything he didn’t want to do. In the opening pages he is described in the following way:
‘In time, banishment from home had become an impossibility for the darling little psychopath, and even Edward himself could no longer distinguish between his real and his self-induced manifestations of abnormality.’
Recently a new alienist has suggested he could enter fugues or periods of automatism. Initially he loved hearing this, as it was another way to gain attention. But now murder has struck he is far from sanguine and also the likeliest subject in the eyes of others. After all what if he had committed the murder whilst in a fugue?
For those who like locked room or impossible crimes I think this story definitely counts as such, as the lodge within which Richard is found could only be accessed by the path and the path had been smoothed down late last night by the gardener in such a way no one else could have done it afterwards. The only footprints are those from the characters which found him in the morning. This aspect was certainly intriguing, though it felt as though it was the suspects who spent more time pondering solutions than Inspector Cockerill did. I wouldn’t say the solution is ingenuous to this locked room mystery, but within the context of the story it fits very well in a way an overly belaboured solution wouldn’t have.
One of the strengths of this book was how Brand used a familiar setup but was also able to create a number of unexpected surprises, such as at the inquest. The ending though holds Brand’s greatest surprises and I think it would certainly feature on any list of crime fiction’s most dramatic endings. The opening of the novel is also somewhat of a surprise, with Edward at another session with a psychoanalyst. Yet I think it was an opening which worked very well, as it sets up a number of expectations concerning this character, none of which are hugely positive. However I was surprised by how Edward as a character turns away from these expectations as the story progressed and in some ways for me he became the most interesting character of the book.
This read also meant a return to Brand’s serial sleuth Inspector Cockerill. His complex character although sparsely commented on, unfolded as the tale developed. Our first description of Cockerill is that he was a:
‘Small, brown and bright-eyed, a dusty little old sparrow arrayed in a startling clean white panama hat, he was soon, sparrow-like, at the centre of all interest and activity, hopping and darting this way and that, in search of crumbs of information.’
However once his investigation into Richard’s murder is firmly underway and he is using his favoured detecting technique of causing suspects to argue with one another to see who slips up, he is described much more darkly: ‘Cockerill darted to and fro like an evil spirit, throwing fresh fuel to the flames.’ With such an interesting sleuth it is therefore a big shame that Cockerill is very much in the shadows in this story, with the suspects’ discussions of the case taking up much more of the narrative space than Cockerill’s own actions. Moreover, his strong desire for the criminal to confess before they are revealed and then arrested, in order that they may save their souls, just came out of nowhere for me. This more personal and emotional sleuth didn’t really match how Cockerill appears before this point.
Nevertheless when it comes to the suspects, Brand’s character psychology is well-crafted, with relationships being complex and life like, avoiding melodramatic pitfalls, and in particular Brand deftly captures the sudden reversals of feelings the suspects have towards each other. I enjoyed the moments we could see what the characters were thinking, as such instances were more often than not done for a specific reason, rather than merely filling space, such as during the inquest when the jurymen’s thoughts are examined.
Whilst this is not a perfect mystery, after all I am not entirely sure the reader could deduce the guilty suspect, this story does have a lot to offer and will happily occupy a rainy afternoon, as it did for me today. Equally if you want to read a country house mystery with a highly unusually ending this is the one to go for in my opinion.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Flower