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.
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.