Cat and Mouse (1950) by Christiana Brand

I haven’t picked up a novel by Brand since September. It is certainly getting harder to find a book by her that I have not read yet. However, I finally came across a cheap copy of this book, though I am left wondering whether the fiction begins from the first pages in the dedication and introduction sections, as Brand spins us the story of how she came up with this story. If she is speaking the truth she apparently build the story off the back of a true story of letters written to an agony aunt named Mary Lewis (last name changed), who was a so called editor of a woman’s magazine. As cool as it would be if this was a true, I think Brand might be using a little creative license. [Thankfully, more informed minds than my own have come to the rescue in elucidating this matter; scroll down to the comments section to find out more.] The lengthy dedication which expands out into a letter is equally sneaky in other matters, sliding in some early red herrings, to throw the reader off track.

As Brand points out from the get go this novel is a melodrama and ‘a ‘thriller’ in every sense’. Our starting point is a woman’s magazine called Girls Together. For some months Miss Friendly-Wise, a.k.a. Tinka Jones, has been receiving as the publication’s agony aunt, a number of letters from a writer called Amista. Tinka and her colleague deduce a young woman very much in love with her 30 something guardian, a love which is eventually supposedly reciprocated, as a forthcoming wedding is written about. Tinka, returning to her Welsh roots, decides to look Amista up, as she too resides in Wales. Yet this nice intention is to go horribly terribly wrong, not least because when Tinka arrives, Amista’s “husband,” Carlyon says he has never heard of Amista and that he has no such wife; a claim which is backed up by the two servants, as well as surrounding neighbours, who have never seen such a person. But then who has been writing the letters? Jane Eyre feelings are not just implicitly channelled, but are even explicitly handed to the reader, with Tinka wondering where Amista could be locked up in this remote, practically moated house… However, like in Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins, her story is distrusted and everyone is suspicious of what she is really doing in the area, even Mr Chucky, who claims to be a policeman… What makes the unravelling of this mystery even harder of course is that Tinka has fallen in love with Carlyon – very hard to sustain murderous suspicion when you keep melting at the knees whenever your chief suspect looks at you…

Overall Thoughts

Brand truly sets up Tinka, and not just her, but the reader as well! She deliberately uses tropes and plot lines, which are so well known and familiar on screen and in print that the reader feels so sure they know how things will end. I won’t say the reader is ultimately proven wrong, but boy does Brand makes you doubt yourself so much that you start to begin seconding guessing. Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case and its myriad of plausible solutions are certainly given a run for their money in this book, with a final quarter which unleashes so many ‘ah ha’ moments, that the final one, the real one, is profoundly shocking, even though it really shouldn’t be. This was one of those occasions where I mentally said, ‘Blooming Heck!’ Such an effect attests to the effectiveness of the misdirection Brand plies around the question of who and where Amista is.

The author really does go the whole hog when it comes to melodrama. You can see how much fun she had hurling melodramatic trope after melodramatic trope into the plot: remote country house, heroine twisting ankle in desperate bid to escape said house, heroine forced to stay the night and is drugged, yet still manages to have a spooky night time encounter, heroine decides to leave, heroine decides to stay, heroine decides to runaway and fails once more… you get the idea. One thing which prevents this from becoming hackneyed is the way Tinka is quite self-aware of her predicament and her behaviour patterns. It always helps if you can laugh at yourself, though I did find her losing her earlier self-confidence and assurance the more she became embedded in the melodrama. Thankfully she has Chucky on hand to rescue her at the required moments. Now this sort of melodrama will drive some readers mad, it may even make some readers write the novel off completely, yet within what becomes at times quite repetitious melodrama, Brand builds a very clever mystery for the reader to solve or not. Additionally she utilises an unusual structure to the mystery, providing a huge chunk of the answer as it were around page 90, making you wonder what will come in the next 130 odd pages. The plot does go on to unfurl a much bigger mystery and horror, however my one criticism of this structural decision is that the early revelation de-energises the piece, slowing the pace down and it takes a lot of the middle section to rev the pace back up to speed, within which time Tinka has lost her drive for propelling the narrative along. Chucky becomes much more of a protagonist at this point.

All in all I think the melodrama may have taken over the story a little too much at times, but nevertheless I had a lot of fun with it and Brand does display a lot of clever cluing, along with some very effective red herrings.

Rating: 4.25/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Animal in the title

Calendar of Crime: August (6) Original Publication Month

My Cat’s Review: I can’t say I understand what Kate found to like about it. Personally I think I was mis-sold about what it was about. I saw the title, the cover which duplicitously contained a cat and a mouse on it and I even scanned the by-line: ‘Siamese cats don’t torture their prey; they kill outright or not at all.’ So I was quite excited for what I presumed would be a tense and thrilling mouse hunting adventure/nature study. Consequently I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of page time the cat in question has and the fact no real mice are involved. What a let-down! Kate has tried to explain it’s all to do with some metaphor, but I remain unimpressed with the negative representation us cats get in crime fiction. We come across as nothing more than sadistic thugs, which I think much maligns us felines, who have lots of other winning, appealing and dare I say it heroic characteristics, which readers never seem to hear about it. Dogs always seem to take precedent, made famous for not even doing something – that silly dog who didn’t bark in the night malarkey! And I don’t get me started on the dog who messed about with the glow in the dark paint… Really I tell you! It’s not on and I hope Kate picks out some better books in the future. Right I’m off to read my Garfield now…

Oh and a few other people’s thoughts: Yvette and Ben

 

AND FINALLY SOME VERY TRIVIAL AND POSSIBLE FRIVOLOUS SPOILERS

Would it be fair to say this book is influenced by the true crime story of George Joseph Smith and his bath time murders?

Also is it just me who found something faintly Scooby Doo-ish about the culprit’s final ranting frustrations? Combination of ‘if it weren’t for you meddlesome women’ with ‘if you women would STOP falling head over heels in love with me… it’s sooo annoying!’

21 comments

  1. Mary Lewis was Christianna Brand’s married name and she worked for Woman magazine, for which she wrote several novellas (all listed, by me, on wikipedia. Mary’s husband, Roland Lewis, confirmed that the book was indeed based on letters received by the magazine’s againy aunt (not by Mary herself).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You nailed so many things with your review. I love how Brand toys with the assumptions that the reader will make based on the tropes that she offers up. It’s like you spend the entire book thinking “I know where this is heading”, even though time and again the rug gets pulled out from under you.

    I’m also glad that you appreciated the head spinning nature of the ending of the book. It isn’t Brand’s best ending (because nearly every book she wrote contends for that prize), but man! As you say, nearly a quarter of the book is spent twisting things around and inside out like taffy. The only real comparison I can think of is a particular passage in Paul Halter’s The Seventh Hypothesis.

    Kind of strange that Cat and Mouse seems to fly a bit under the radar these days. Perhaps because it is a melodrama, but as you point out, it’s really that it plays off of melodrama expectations.

    I recently finished another “obscure” Brand title and I’m still mentally recovering from the ending. You’ll have to wait a few days to find out which one that was…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sure Agatha will be pleased her opinions have been so well received! I wrote a post on cats in mystery fiction a while ago and it did seem that cats mostly fell into the camps of victim, such as with some of Sayers short stories, or anti-heroic mode of vengeance and revenge, which can be seen in Poe and Christie short stories. Though it is nice when a cat helps Miss Marple solve the case in A Murder is Announced.

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      • There’s an entire sub-genre of the “cozy” mystery that revolves around cats. Cats sniff out crimes, collect evidence, hiss at the guilty, and even solve the damn mystery. They practically do everything except drag the criminal off to jail.

        It’s understandable if you are keeping this information from your own cat. In these books the humans exist only to feed and pamper the animals. Don’t give her any ideas.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes that subgenre does somewhat go to the other extreme of feline representation! I think Agatha would either love to hear about that subgenre and insist all future reviews to feature such books or she would worry about me reading too much about other cats. She can always tell when I’ve been stroking or fussing dogs and she never looks too impressed.

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  3. Thanks for the review. 😊 I too picked this up from my local library because I was running out of Brand novels to read. My pedantry in saving best for last has been reinforced by reading Death in Jezebel first, leaving me with Heads You Lose as my final Brand novel. 😑

    As for Cat and Mouse, it felt like Brand started the novel wanting to write Jane Eyre, but couldn’t shake off her golden age mystery roots by the end. I agree that there was slightly too much melodrama – but the ending was much more clued than the preceding histrionics would have led me to expect. Which is a good thing, I suppose!

    Isn’t there talk of a hitherto unpublished Brand novel being released soon? Maybe Heads You Lose won’t be my final foray into Brand…

    Liked by 1 person

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