Christianna Brand: Another Ranked List

Last year I began a small series of posts in which I rank the works of a given author, or on a given theme. These are the lists I have posted to date:

Naturally these lists are somewhat random in their appearances, as it all depends on me having completed or read a substantial amount of a writer’s work, before I can write a list. However lately I realised if I re-read Green for Danger (1944), then I would be able to do a ranked list of Brand’s main mystery novels. (Though I am aware that she wrote some much later in life such as The Rose in Darkness – But with copies exceeding £300 it is not a title that was going to make its way on to this list any time soon!)

So without further ado here is my list:

8th Place – Death in High Heels (1941)

Whilst it is never great to be in last place, I should point out that this book garnered a 3.75/5 rating, when I reviewed it. So compared to the others it is my least favourite, but by itself it is still not a really bad book. This was Brand’s first mystery novel, so it is understandable that it is not her best. The dress shop setting is well-realised, based on Brand’s own working experiences, yet this story’s biggest issue is its poor pacing. The dialogue in particular is painfully slow with a repetitiveness creeping in as the suspects examine and re-examine the case. Inspector Charlesworth also did not hugely appeal to me. His demeanour was a little off putting. What this book is good at though is its exploration of being a woman in the 1940s, as the various female shop employees provide a kaleidoscope of different backgrounds and life problems.

7th Place – Heads You Lose (1941)

This is Brand’s first country house mystery and also her first Inspector Cockrill mystery. Whilst it shows real potential with its impossible crime and unusual murder weapon, I don’t feel she gets the tone and characters quite right. The suspects are a bit too unlikeable and petulant, though Cockerill’s sarcasm is a good antidote to it. The ending has a rather jarring comic note which did not work for me, and I think Brand pulls off the impossible crime country house mystery much more successfully in Suddenly at His Residence.

6th Place – Cat and Mouse (1950)

This book has unusual origins, based on some letters a Woman’s magazine agony aunt received, and it was at this magazine that Brand also worked and presumably heard about the letters. This tale is very much a thriller and has many lashings of melodrama, (perhaps a little too much of the latter). Yet this book is also full of misdirection and red herrings, with the reader being set up as much as the protagonist. The reader should be wary of making predictions off the back of certain tropes and plot lines. They are very familiar ones, but Brand does not use them the way you expect her to. Amongst the melodrama is a mystery to be solved, yet it is not the one you think it is going to be. Given how much I enjoyed this one it is strange seeing it in 6th place. Yet again bear in mind this book got a 4.25/5 rating from me, so being in 6th place is not a warning to avoid this book.

5th Place – London Particular a.k.a. Fog of Doubt (1952)

Brand set this novel in Maida Vale where she lived at one point, and according to P. D. James this was her favourite work. The story makes full use of a then very real problem: namely smog, which thoroughly obscures the suspects’ alibis and timings. The subject matter of this book is darker than some of Brand’s others, yet her narrative shows that this does not automatically entail excessive bleakness and self-pity. Threads of comedy still make their way into the story, which I think helped to make this book an effective psychological drama. This book also of course demonstrates Brand’s ability to produce an ending with a clout.

4th Place – Green for Danger (1944)

This was a title I re-read yesterday, and I was happily surprised to find that I enjoyed this book more than I thought I was going to. I really enjoyed Brand’s use of the wartime setting, which is actively woven into the plot and the characters’ lives. This narrative has some pacing issues, but the baffling and intriguing murder makes up for this. Brand creates many dramatic moments and I think both the beginning and the ending are very well-constructed.

3rd Place – Suddenly at His Residence (1947)

This is Brand’s second go at writing an impossible crime country house mystery, set during WW2, and for me it is the best of the two. It contains one of her best endings/reveal of a killer, though in fairness this is a narrative which is full of surprises. Whilst her set of suspects are not model citizens, I would say they nevertheless grab your interest and you are keen to see how things will end for them. The character psychology is well done, and I am baffled as to why not more of her work has been adapted for TV or film. It should be noted that the books in 6th place to 3rd, all share the same rating of 4.25/5. It was very hard to differentiate their merit, so I wouldn’t be surprised if other readers rearrange their positions.

2nd Place – Death of Jezebel (1948)

Deciding on 2nd and 1st place was also another tricky decision, as again both stories shared the same rating of 4.5/5. In the end I felt this novel had a drier writing style in parts, due to the complicated mechanics of the murder method. Nevertheless, this is still a really good read, with its high impact murders and complicated characters and love triangles. I think Brand achieves emotional depth, pathos and nuance in this piece, yet without letting the plot submerge beneath the human suffering.

1st Place – Tour de Force (1955)

In my opinion this title is a very deserving first place winner. I’m hoping this is not too surprising a choice! I think Brand gets a lot right in this book. The package holiday setting is constructed deftly, and I love how much of a juxtaposition Inspector Cockrill is compared to the other holidaymakers. Brand’s humour also has lots of opportunities to shine through and she gives Cockrill a very tricky case to solve.

Which is your favourite Brand novel?

19 comments

  1. I’ve read all of these except for Death of Jezebel and Death in High Heels. Once you get to 5th place, you might as well roll the dice because these are all so good. I suppose I’d put Suddenly at His Residence and Green for Danger ahead of Tour de Force – I actually think it is Tour de Force that has the pacing issues, although Green for Danger certainly does as well during the “breaking”.

    Cat and Mouse is excellent, but yes, it belongs after the first five. Man, that story has soooo many twists in the last quarter, I get excited just thinking about it. I’m definitely destined to re-read it.

    Here’s a stab at my Best of Brand that I’ve read.
    10. Heaven Knows Who
    9. Alas for Her that Met Me
    8. Heads You Lose
    7. Ring of Roses
    6. Cat and Mouse
    5. The Rose in Darkness
    4. Fog of Doubt
    3. Tour de Force
    2. Suddenly at His Residence
    1. Green for Danger

    I wouldn’t bother reading Heaven Knows Who. All the rest are well worth your time, although Alas for Her that Met Me isn’t quite a mystery novel. Ring of Roses and Cat and Mouse are very similar, so if you liked one, you’ll like the other. My top five are very tough to rank and I hate implying that one is better than another.

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  2. Death of Jezebel and London Particular would split my vote as the best of Brand. LP is the best straight-up murder mystery I’ve read. The heartbreaking flaws of Rosie and Tedward are the sort of things Carr or Halter would find boring. DoJ is the best impossible crime mystery I’ve read. The diabolical mechanism of the crime is the sort of thing Christie or Sayers would find beneath them (impossible crime fanatics are such trolls!). Brand is the best of both worlds. I’d also recommend The Rose in Darkness. It’s much more stream-of-consciousness than her other novels, but it’s another fine example of her gut-wrenching endings.

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    • Yes Brand does create quite memorable set ups for her books and having read two recently I find she can achieve quite a lot of emotional depth without becoming sentimental or gushing. Her endings are a case in point.

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    • I still get chills down my spine whenever someone mentions The Rose in Darkness. Inevitably I end up going to the shelf, getting it out, and reading those last six paragraphs… What other book does that?

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  3. This and the comments are very useful. I have only three by Brand. I read Heads You Lose and Green for Danger a few years ago and agree that I would rank Heads You Lose very low. I could find very little redeeming value in it. The third book I have is Tour de Force so I am glad you ranked it so high.

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  4. I’ve not read all of the titles ranked here, or mentioned in the comments, but Green for Danger, London Particular and Death of Jezebel would make up my top 3 with Suddenly At His Residence coming in fourth ahead of Tour de Force. Sorry Kate. 🙂

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    • I don’t mind! When putting the list together so many of the titles were so similar in quality it was hard sorting them out. Sure on a different day and a few re-reads I could probably rearrange a few of them.

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  5. Thanks for the interesting rankings. 😊 It’s interesting to see which title you put at the top, as I find Tour de Force a bold experiment, but one that didn’t quite pull it off – the central twist was bold, but I wasn’t sure it felt sufficiently plausible? Then again, I probably am prejudiced in favour of Jezebel and Green being the top two titles. I think I might put High Heels above Cat and Mouse – found the latter slightly too gothic-Bronte. But it turned out, surprisingly, to be a proper whodunit, which is a point in its favour.

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  6. I have read only 4 Brands, your top 4. I like Suddenly best and Jezebel least. But I liked them all.

    Green is the one I would recommend to anyone who wasn’t a known GAD fan.

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  7. Oh I love a top 10 list! I would put Green for Danger top, just over Tour de Force: really, it’s Green for atmosphere, Tour for plot and surprise. After that – well you gave equal marks to several and that’s how I’d feel, hard to pick. I hope you find The Rose of Darkness for less than $300 – it is very good and lingers in the memory. And secretly not a fan of Death of Jezebel.

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    • Forgot to say – has anyone mentioned her short stories? I think I’d like to put a collection of those in my top 10, she wrote some exceptional ones. There’s a couple of collections.

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      • I have not read many of her short stories, just the ones which have turned up in recent anthologies by the BL and Bodies from the Library, but I would like to read more of her short story work. I have the feeling she might be an author who is good in both the long and short format.

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