Despite once again being a very un-summery read, this read was actually a timely one, as in the next couple of weeks JJ, who writes The Invisible Event blog will be doing a solo Spoiler Warning post. It goes without saying that you really need to have read the book before reading that kind of post and whilst I have read this book, it was a long time ago and I couldn’t remember too much about it. So hopefully this post will whet your appetite for the book and encourage you to read it if you haven’t, in readiness for JJ’s all out, no bars discussion of it.
According to the introduction to my copy of the book, written by P. D. James, Brand had said this was her favourite work that she wrote, set within Maida Vale where she lived. The beginning of the story immerses the reader in a London smog, which is enveloping Rosie and Dr Edwards, (known as Tedwards), as they try to drive back to Rosie’s home. This is no ordinary journey, as they received a call from Raoul Vernet, a dinner guest of Rosie’s family and old flame of Matilda, the wife of Rosie’s brother, Dr Thomas Evans. He says he has been attacked and is dying. The call ends ominously. This is an urgent trip yet one which cannot be taken with any great speed, due to the smog. Yet these twos’ thoughts around Vernet are intriguingly not wholly sympathetic. Brand however then takes the reader back in time, leading up to the events prior to the telephone call, including the news that Rosie has become pregnant whilst in Switzerland. 18 and unmarried she is keen to avoid motherhood completely, so makes her way around her various family and friends, barring her brother, manipulating the truth to try and wheedle out the necessary money or medical help. Eventually though events do arrive back at Rosie’s home, Vernet dead on the hallway floor and it doesn’t take long for the police to decide it is an inside job. Inspector Cockerill is called in, by Rosie, who is worried about which of her family are going to be arrested, wrongfully of course. It goes without saying that most of the suspects have something to hide about that fateful night and that when an arrest is made, many seemingly false confessions are provided. A trial makes up the final third of the book, but the outcome is anything but decided…
Whilst it is common for vintage crime novels to use snow as a means of containing various suspects within the inevitable country home, Brand’s use of smog to prolong her suspects time outside and/or fudge such timings, is much more unusual and in some ways much more atmospheric. It may well be the 1950s, but the smog definitely brings the gothic touch to this mid-20th century novel, especially with phrases such as, ‘his yellow wash-leather glove looming up startlingly, a disembodied hand…’ I also wonder if Brand was echoing or alluding to T. S. Elliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1920) when she describes Tedward’s car, ‘the little car stealing through the muffled murmur of the fog blanketed city like a marauding cat – creeping along on its belly, grey body melting into the grey, only its two bright eyes round and agleam in the night.’ As there are a couple of stanzas within this poem that equally merge feline imagery with smog and in and amongst this, there is this line: ‘there will be time to murder and create.’ When trying to set her smog-filled scene, I wonder whether any of this earlier work filtered through her mind…
I also enjoyed the structure of the book, especially the opening chapters as straight after the first chapter in which we learn of the phone call, we are taken back in time to consider not only the various mysteries around the alibis of the suspects but also the mystery of who the father of Rosie’s baby is. It is only after we have been given this information that chapter 5 brings us back to murder, and the moment the body is found is a superbly dark moment, delivered in a way very reminiscent of psychological crime TV dramas.
For a book that is very open in its discussion of abortion, it is far from bleak and has a number of comic moments and characters, such as the grandma, whose dotty behaviour is intriguingly a combination of genuine dottiness and put on behaviour – possibly… Equally the conversations Rosie has with people in order to get assistance with getting rid of the baby are given to the reader in such a manner that her attempts become quite funny. Now normally this would seem an inappropriate response, yet Rosie at this stage in the book never presents herself as a subject of pity or sympathy, her vibrant self-interest and lack of self-awareness don’t allow it. Additionally some of the humour is derived from the foibles of Rosie’s listeners, again such as with the grandma who suddenly goes into one of her less lucid moments. There are also other moments of humour, yet I would say these are bittersweet, tinged with poignancy, such as with the 23 year old Melissa who is panicking that she will be “left on the shelf.” It is interesting when reading vintage mystery fiction over the different decades and seeing at what age the single female characters are beginning to worry about their single state. With my last 1940s read it was women in their 30s, yet it seems odd that in a book a decade later the age has dropped remarkably, as I kind of thought that as time progressed the age would increase, as I don’t feel today, (though do correct me if I am wrong), that many 23 year olds today would be having a similar panic.
The police definitely seem to have more of a background role/feel in comparison to the vibrancy of the suspect characters and the murkiness of their relationships. Cockerill only really comes into the lime light at the end, but even then his involvement in the conclusion of the case is tantalising intangible. I was surprised by how the book ends, not in regards to the identity of the killer as it is a re-read after all, but more literally in how it ends and how the case is concluded. It felt a little convenient, but perhaps in some ways this reflects human nature more accurately.
So all in all another strong re-read and it was nice that there were a few things I had forgotten about the plot, especially one particularly dramatic and blunt moment. But of course you’ll have to read JJ’s post to find out what this is … unless of course JJ doesn’t mention it, then that will just be a bit awkward. Fingers crossed hey?
Finally a thought occurred to me when reading this book that whilst writers such as Christie are much more oblique and circumspect in how certain social issues are discussed, Brand is much blunter about it and therefore I felt perhaps she would be a much better author for current TV adaptors, given the Phelpian trend.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Book published under more than one title