Death of Jezebel (1948) – A Revisit

This is my next book group’s choice, a title I only had read for the first time in 2020. Surprisingly, despite the short gap between reads, I had very few memories of this mystery and couldn’t remember the solution. If anything, it is the opening which stuck with me the most. For my more detailed full review from 2020, click here. However, for this post I thought I would look at the reasons this is an enjoyable book.

British Library Crime Classic cover for Christianna Brand's Death of Jezebel. It shows a medieval dressed knight on a white horse with purple decoration.

Six Reasons Death of Jezebel is a Great Read

Reason No. 1: The Stark and Dark Opening

Death of Jezebel’s introduction is strong not just because it lingers in your mind, but also because of what it shows a puzzle-clue mystery can achieve. From the get-go Brand’s novel does not let you erroneously mislabel it as cosy, nor assume the book treats death too light-heartedly. Deaths matter in this story. They are not a means to an end, plot wise. I am not usually a fan of mysteries which have bleak tones, but I think the author delivers the darkness in her book, her notes of poignancy and disillusionment, in a measured manner. The sadness does not repel you nor weigh you down.

Reason No. 2: Brand’s Antiheroines

There are two main female protagonists in this novel – callous diva Isabel Drew, who sees those around her as resources to use, and a tarnished damsel in distress, Perpetua Kirk, whose fairy tale happily ever after gets blotted out within pages of the mystery starting. The consequences of this loss run throughout the story. I look more at Perpetua, and her divergence from the typical narrative trajectory for heroines, in my earlier blog review.

Reason No. 3: Choice of Victims

Normally in detective fiction there is one character who is being lined up as the victim, with motives for their murder being clearly identified for the reader. However, I liked how Brand offers us three potential murder victims in this story and you wonder which of them is going to be bumped off and be bumped off first. In the events preceding the first murder, you would not be blamed for considering Perpetua as the more likely victim, as initially it seems like Johnny Wise’s friends are more aggrieved with Perpetua Kirk, for his suicide than either Isabel or Earl Anderson. It is almost like more is expected of her morally. Perpetua’s apathy, following the suicide of her fiancé, is interpreted by the other characters as lack of remorse. Even to the reader, arguably, she comes across as rude, cold, aloof, and unsympathetic, including when she is in peril. Yet by presenting her in this way, I think Brand is trying to craft a more complicated depiction of grief and loss, which puts me in mind of The Long Shadow (1975) by Celia Fremlin, a later mystery novel which explores the social etiquette surrounding grief.

Reason No.4: Post-War Britain Setting

One of the things I enjoy about vintage crime fiction is that it opens a window into the past, but in a more convincing way than some modern historical fiction set in the same period. The obvious difference is that the vintage crime authors were writing about their present, so the social and cultural details they include feel more authentic and more naturally placed. There is no sense of padding or forcing in of a piece of information. Brand’s mystery is a case in point, and I think she does a good job of providing a snapshot of the difficulties people were facing after WW2 concluded when it came to jobs and housing. Moreover, I think Brand contrasts these problems with the mass commercialism of the exhibition her mystery is set around.

Reason No. 5: Brand Can Write a Good Death

Less is more, is an often-deployed adage, but it is one which is pertinent to the success of the writing style of Death of Jezebel. Before the murder at the exhibition the author effectively increases the tension with a series of threatening letters, before including a taunting warning in Inspector Cockrill’s pocket. Moreover, she prefaces her dramatis personae list at the start of the novel with notes on how many victims and killers there will be in the list. Touches like this keep the reader’s mind active. When it comes to the exhibition murder, I was really impressed during this re-read by how much impact her one or two sentences concerning the death scene have:

‘The floodlights shifted, gradually ascending to the darkened window of the tower: and slowly, sickeningly, Isabel’s body toppled over the low railing of the balcony and landed with a horrible, soft, slightly scrunching thud on the floor below. [Chapter break] Through the cold hush that followed the thud of Isabel’s fall, the single scream of a woman in the crowd pierced the eardrums like the whistle of an engine.’

Slowly, sickeningly, soft, slightly scrunching – all these words, especially the last, add to the horror of the scene. They are then followed by a solitary cry. This is a powerful section because it is kept short, and Brand leaves the reader to imagine the scene without spoon feeding them every detail.

Reason 6: Comic Sleuth Rivalry

Finally, one of the aspects of this mystery that I loved on first and seconding reading is the humorous rivalry between Detective Inspector Charlesworth and Detective Inspector Cockrill. Again, this is a component which is not overdone, and it is aided by much of the comedy occurring in the thoughts the detectives have about each other.

Who would enjoy this book?

  • Fans of impossible crime mysteries
  • Readers who enjoy social and cultural details, which feed into the main plot. In this case it would be of interest to those looking at post-war Britain and the long term effects the war had had on the country.
  • Puzzle-clue mystery fans
  • Readers who like a grittier and darker mystery and who may be less keen on P. G. Wodehouse light-hearted type mysteries.
  • Readers who like female characters who are not easily pigeonholed into types.

11 comments

  1. This is my favorite Brand novel. Everything works well here: Brand’s characters, impossible crime, false solutions considered, resolution/culprit, etc. It just all comes together. I have this in hard cover with just jacket and it is a prized possession.

    Imagine if Brand’s output had been as prolific as that of Carr or Christie. Regardless, she is an impressive GAD authors and re-read potential of her books is strong.

    It has been an “impossible crime” in and of itself that this has not been reprinted … now thanks to the British Library, there is no reason GAD enthusiasts cannot enjoy it.

    A serious contender if you run your re-print of the year survey again.

    Liked by 1 person

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