Heads You Lose (1941) by Christianna Brand

This country house mystery, which is also Inspector Cockrill’s first appearance, is not a novel by Brand I have read much about it online. As with other works by her, she leaves a tantalising comment on the cast of characters page that ‘among these ten very ordinary people were found two victims and a murderer.’ It was quite sweet that she dedicated the book to her dachshund Dumptsi and such a dog also features in the book, mostly for comic relief.

The first chapter introduces us to Stephen Pendock’s house party, bringing strongly to our attention the male devotion Francesca receives and the effect this has on one particular visitor to the house, Grace Morland, who is jealous of the way Stephen loves Fran. We also get to hear of a murder last summer of a kitchen maid who was decapitated in the woods, a murder which was never solved… Yet whilst Fran is busy trying to decide who to marry, and whether or not being hopelessly in love is all that important, pencilling in a tryst with James Nicholls simultaneously; another of the house party has murder on their mind and it is only a matter of hours before a body is discovered. It is no spoiler to say that the killer is one of the house party, as a key item is left on the body which only they could have known about. Yet from the get go the house party are determined to believe in the tramp or random maniac theory, lying whenever it feels convenient. This becomes a less tenable approach when body number two shows up and the investigative waters are muddied by telephone calls, an explosive secret and an outsider confession.

Overall Thoughts

Prior to this book I had read Brand’s Suddenly at his Residence (1947), a much later country house mystery novel. Both share a number of parallels: war time setting, same number of cast of characters, victims and killer, both feature Cockrill and have an impossible crime involving a body surrounded by a substance which should show footprints but does not. There is a brutality to both texts but on reflection I think her second attempt is by far the stronger of the two, in terms of plotting, solution and characters. Firstly the impossibility angle of Suddenly at his Residence is more confidently dealt with, though in fairness to Heads You Lose, I did like the choice of one of the more unusual murder weapons used.

Secondly, the motivation behind the crimes in the later novel is far more satisfying, as is the choice of victims. The suspect group are fairly callous towards the first choice of victim, yet it wasn’t hugely justifiable. In fairness there was one character I would have much preferred to have been bumped off, but more on that later. Additionally I think it is hard to top the reveal of the killer in Suddenly at his Residence, though the killers in both texts have a moment of self-sacrifice. The solution in Heads You Lose plays around with the false solution trope but I don’t think it Brand effectively pulls it off. The final ending also jarred for me, as there are great comic touches in this final chapter, yet they felt very much out of place, given the contents of the chapter preceding this.

But now for the characters. Aside from the dachshund, Lady Hart and Inspector Cockrill I struggled to fully engage with the characters, in particular the suspects. Fran is not particularly deserving of all the concern, attention and affection poured over her. She is a borderline vapid spoilt child and very much likes to have her cake and eat it when it comes to her love interests. Unlikeable characters are certainly a preference or forte shall we say of Brand’s. The suspects group generally act throughout the novel as though they should be exempt from anything inconvenient to themselves, with many pouts of petulance cropping up. However I think this made me warm to Cockrill all the more, who happily pulls their noses out of joint with his toughness and sarcasm i.e. “No all the suspects cannot just go home, just because they don’t like being there”. Interestingly I feel like the reader gets to know the suspects much more thoroughly in Suddenly at his Residence than we do in Heads You Lose.

It is not a terrible book, despite my grinching, (I thought it had gone way but it came back), but I think having read better books by Brand, it comes across as a lesser book for me, especially given the number of parallels between this book and Suddenly at his Residence.

Rating: 4/5

23 comments

  1. I’ve always thought this was an interesting and amusing book that’s marred by one of the worst endings in the history of detective fiction — on a par with “Suddenly they were all run over by a truck and died, the end.” The identity of the murderer is completely impossible to work out, regardless of clueing, very much unlike Suddenly At His Residence. It made my blood boil upon first reading.

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  2. Despite its lesser reputation, I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable this was. Fran is dreadful, but she’s meant to be, which does make a difference. And without being graphic, Brand doesn’t shy away from the horror of the decapitations.

    It’s been a few years since I read it, though. I also had very fond memories of Fog of Doubt until actually rereading it.

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  3. I have been wanting to read more by Brand spurred on by your recent reviews. I have only read two by her, this one and Green for Danger. I read Heads You Lose first, and did not like it at all. (Mostly for the ending I suppose, that it was disappointing in many ways.) Fortunately I moved immediately on to Green for Danger, probably motivated by having the Criterion edition of the movie and wanting to read the book first. And loved Green for Danger, of course. Both book and movie.

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  4. I haven’t seen much positive on this one, although I may be mixing it with Death in High Heels. I have it sitting on the shelf, although I may save it until after some of the obscure Brands. I love the grinch review that still results in a 4!

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    • You’re right, Green Capsule. This one is, or was, universally disliked and I’m surprised at the lack of overtly negative comments here. Kate even gave it four-stars while in Grinch mode!

      I read Heads, You Lose shortly after Green for Danger and remember thinking that it was as if they were written by two different writers, because the gap in the quality of plotting and characterization was enormous. At first, I thought it was the Dutch translation, which was easier to get at the time than the original, but my response overlapped with those who read it in English.

      So no idea where this sudden burst of mild opinions on Heads, You Lose are coming from. It’s probably something in the water.

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      • I think I thought I might be grinching as these days when I don’t like books I invariably find so many other people love the title in question. I imagined with this review receiving comments from Brad saying he was Fran’s BFF, Moira extolling the clothing details and JJ raving about the impossible aspects. But it seems my fear was unjustified. Perhaps I misperceived myself as grinching when it seems compared to you, Noah and Ben, that I was positively praising the book. I think I didn’t rate it any lower as I remembered rating Murder Underground as 3.75 and I felt I had enjoyed the pace and writing style of HYL more.

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  5. Really happy to read your more-than-fair review of this book! Like Tracy and TomCat (and you) mention above, Heads You Lose suffers from comparison to other, later Brand. I remember reading it after Green for Danger and feeling dissatisfied. Although it was ages ago — 15+ years — what stays with me isn’t any memory of a specific plotline or character or puzzle twist, but instead a general restless feeling as I was reading, like I was already looking for the next title in my TBR list.

    I mention this because (for me) it’s the difference between a writer delivering a genre-structured story where the author believes in the world and the characters (thus allowing the reader to believe and stay engaged) and an author using the world and characters as stage and players to be manipulated as expected by the story type. It may have taken Brand time to become the former type of writer, and her testing the waters, author-as-capricious-god early try may have resulted in the unlikable Fran and the off-tone ending chapter. She didn’t quite believe in her own story, perhaps….

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  6. Have this one in the collection but don’t know much about it at all so thanks for the review. And really helpful to see it placed against Suddenly. Surprised to hear it has this impossible element – is it really an impossible by the end? Never heard it described ion those terms.

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  7. Thanks for the review, which makes me feel slightly better having left ‘Heads You Lose’ as my final foray into Christianna Brand’s novels. Comforting to know that it’s still a decent, even good, read! Though would the rating suggest you weren’t overly-impressed by the puzzle? Or is the characterisation to be blamed for the slightly lower rating?

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    • Well I don’t think it would be a save best till last read. I think the general consensus was that I was being too generous, but I guess if you’ve not got many other options with Brand then it would be reasonable end point. I think the solution will annoy, possibly even more than it did me. Did make Noah’s blood boil after all!

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  8. this book might have been on a balance – not her best, but not that bad – except for the ending, which is exactly as Noah says above: it is ridiculous. But I also had issues with the characters – in my blogpost, I object to the fact that in Brand’s books there are often ‘Silly girls who are indulged by the author, while others are criticized, though the reader cannot see a cigarette paper difference between them. In this one, Fran (who actually has a minor role in Jezebel) is completely selfish, insensitive and I thought unpleasant, but her feelings are apparently ‘real’ as opposed to a disliked character, Peppy, and a maid, who are both mocked for how they react to violent death.’

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