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:
- Ranking the Work of Anthony Berkeley
- Kate’s Epic Ranking of Christmas Mysteries
- Sergeant Beef’s Cases: Another List
- New Year, New List: Ranking Alice Tilton’s Leonidas Witherall Mysteries
- Ethel Lina White: Best to Worst (of What I’ve Read So Far)
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?