Today’s read is a book I had been searching for, for a long time. Finally, I got a hold of a copy in February and it has only taken 5 months for me to get around to reading it.
Death in High Heels (1941), is well-known for being inspired by Brand’s own shop work experience, yet the foreword to my copy of Death of Jezebel, also suggests that this later work was inspired by Brand’s employment ‘as a demonstrator at trade fairs,’ as in the book the seemingly impossible/locked room murder takes place at the Homes for Heroes Exhibition, upon the stage on which a historical pageant is being enacted.
Despite the murder occurring in a public space, the crime has a closed set of suspects, comprised of seven individuals who were taking part or working behind the scenes of the pageant. Of these seven, three individuals receive a death threat, warning them of their impending doom on the evening the exhibition opens. Of these three, two die. Motive?
The main and most compelling motive is signposted from the prologue set seven years previously. Isabel Drew and Earl Anderson, pleasure as well as self- seeking intoxicate a younger friend, Perpetua Kirk, to the point where her fiancé finds her in the arms of Earl. Horrified he commits suicide, and despite the passing of time, his death casts a long and haunting shadow over their lives, and the lives of those who knew him.
The first murder has high impact. Just as the pageant is beginning with the knights on their ponies getting into position, Isabel falls from the tower she was supposed to give her speech from. No one was near her, yet she was manually strangled shortly before she fell, (bruises attest to that). The assembly room entrance was bolted on the inside and the body has several curious items around or attached to it. Added to which after the crime, both Perpetua and Earl are nowhere to be found, despite having roles within the pageant, including in Earl’s case being one of the knights on stage.
The case as it progresses only gets more intricate with Inspector Cockrill, (in London for a police conference), and Scotland Yard Inspector Charlesworth having their mettle and ingenuity tested to their limits. Multiple theories and confessions follow, but which one is correct?
For those who are less familiar with Brand’s work, Inspector Cockrill and Inspector Charlesworth, are each series sleuths, so it is very intriguing to have a story where they are both included. Sort of makes you wonder what it would be like to a novel with Poirot and Miss Marple in. Brand uses her pair very effectively in this case as there is a delightful friction between them, with each trying to appear as the superior detective, and use any excuse to put their colleague down. This rivalry though is not unpleasant to read; the friction staying the right side of acrimony and rudeness. Free indirect discourse enables Brand to embed the thoughts each detective has of the other, and through this she produces an engaging undercurrent of gentle comedy. Moreover, as the case gets ever trickier, a bond develops between the pair.
It was only when I was explaining this book to someone yesterday that it dawned on me that Brand in this story, and in others such as London Particular (1952), is adept at providing a grittier, definitely non-cosy mystery, without wallowing in suffering and grimness. Individual sorrows are not glossed over or brushed aside, yet they do not overwhelm the plot. For instance, we have the wife of the pageant master who suffered so much in Malaya during the war when the Japanese invaded, that she is now in a nursing home, most of her adult memories gone due to the trauma. Interestingly details like this, which may seem like background colour, eventually show themselves to be integral parts of the mystery. Brand’s eye for irony also finds a place in these bleaker aspects, such as when the narrative describes the exhibition:
‘The enormous shell of the Elysian Hall was in process of conversion into a small township of model homes suitable for the Heroes of England – (who meanwhile crowded in with reluctant relatives, and by day tramped the streets pleading with agents and officials that anything would do, the wife wasn’t particular, not any more…)’
Brand’s picture of post-war Britain does not fail to include the difficulties being experienced.
The two central deaths are also grittier in some ways than is usually expected of classic crime fiction, as both retain allusions to deaths mentioned in the Bible. The grittiness is not just in the manner of their deaths, but also in the way they express the passion of the killer to eliminate their targets.
This leads nicely on to the central trio: Perpetua, Earl and Isabel. The beginning chapters of the novel are effective in revealing how much or how little they have been affected by the suicide of Perpetua’s fiancé. All of them are having to live with the consequences of their actions. Isabel’s ego means that it has little or no effect on her, and when we see her at the start of the book the narrative is punctured with her critical asides concerning the other characters. Although I do feel she is an unusual maneater.
Meanwhile Perpetua is a more complicated character. Initially she does not engender sympathy, despite being the more vulnerable character who was led astray. Her remarks are blunt, bored and empty – yet it is this emptiness which reveals how the death of her fiancé, has now left her a living husk. She has given up and just passes through life uncaring. Inspector Cockrill says she is ‘like a dead leaf, ever since that night,’ though earlier in the story even he asks: ‘What on earth was there in this gentle, pretty, maddeningly vague young creature that impelled his pity and care?’ I would say she embodies the fallen woman trope, commonly found in Victorian fiction, yet I would then say she is not your typical kind. Brand definitely updates the trope and uses it for a different effect. Moreover, this part of the plot, the party which leads to the suicide, is a further example of how forward-thinking Brand’s mystery writing style was, and how much it chimes in with more modern crime fiction.
As I was reading this story, I increasingly felt the nods the text made to Shakespeare. The original suicide and its consequences certainly have a Shakespearean ring to them, as does Brand’s use of twins as a plot device. Furthermore, the role of unrequited love, and the tendency for the suspects to be in love with people who don’t like them, or for more than one man to be interested in one woman, strongly reminded me of Midsummer Night’s Dream. For those who assume classic crime fiction is superficial and lacking in emotional depth, I think this book would suggest otherwise.
Readers should not despair that because I have noted the text’s modern qualities, that the puzzle-plot of the book is consequently inferior. The use of the death threats means that before the deaths take place the reader has the mystery of which two characters are going to die. The reveal of the second corpse is also dramatically achieved, reminding me of Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Cardboard Box’ (1893). Yet Brand, even in this grim situation, can’t forgo some comedy: ‘A courting couple, arms entwined, had sat down upon the torso of [name redacted] under a bush on the evening after Isabel’s murder: and never felt quite the same towards one another again.’
Inspector Cockrill very early on in the case showcases the complexity of the murder Brand offers us:
‘This is a projection of the “sealed room” mystery. The scene of the murder was bounded on one side by a stage, under the observation of several thousand pairs of eyes; and on the other by a locked door, with somebody sitting on guard on the other side of it. The murderer must have been within these confines. And the place is as bare as a biscuit box, so that there is nowhere where he can possibly have hidden, or remain hidden.’
In the final third of the story, a dizzying whirl of confessions are unfurled upon us; all of which revealing something important. Yet can you pick out the crucial clues? (Answer: If you’re me then no!) My own idea was one of the false solutions, and though I had latched onto a significant element of the crime’s mechanisms, I hadn’t really been able to put it together with anything else. You definitely need to keep your wits about you for the finale and the ending is fittingly a mixture of pain and victory.
So if you are fortunate to come across a copy of this book then I would strongly recommend giving it a go.
See also: JJ at The Invisible Event, Jose at A Crime is Afoot, Les at Classic Mysteries, Yvette at In So Many Words, Nick at The Grandest Game in the World and Tomcat at Beneath the Stains of Time have also reviewed this title.
For a book that is hard to get a hold of, there is weirdly quite a sizeable body of reviews!