#140: Death of Jezebel (1948) by Christianna Brand

death-of-jezebelApologies for my recent blogging absence; a combination of what I understand are referred to as ‘IRL’ circumstances and the fact that everything I picked up and tried to read was absolute dreck put something of a kibosh on things.  The sensible thing seemed to be just to write off September and move on.  So now I’m back with the oft-cited classic — and so inevitably hard-to-find outside of the USA, where the lovely Mysterious Press have published it — locked room mystery Death of Jezebel by Christianna Brand.  Why this one?  Well, it’s supposed to be awesome and I’m trying to get into Brand, having been thoroughly meh’d by Green for Danger (1944) and slightly more taken with Suddenly at His Residence (a.k.a. The Crooked Wreath) (1946).  So, how did I fare?

Well, following the impossible murder of a much-despised starlet mid-show in a watched tower which no-one could enter from the front (the audience would have seen) nor the rear (the door into the room behind was locked and guarded), I spotted the killer almost instantly.  Several chapters of cunning misdirection followed, but I was not fooled.  Then it turned out that they provably couldn’t be the killer, as an aspect of the case definitely excluded them.  Dammit.  To cut a long story short, rinse and repeat this for the rest of the book, because I was lead on a merry chase right up to the final final final revelation when the sheer audacity of Brand’s flaunting of two massive clues right in your face for ages made me laugh like I haven’t done since the conclusion of John Dickson Carr’s The Man Who Could Not Shudder (1940).

It’s all the more impressive since, before the book even begins, you get a list of eight people, one of who dies in the prologue, and you’re told that two of the others die and a third is the killer.  So for solidly two-thirds of the book you know it has to be one of five people, but I would be amazed if any reader legitimately figured it out with more than guesswork.  Brand Poisoned Chocolates Cases it perhaps a touch too far in the rounds of accusation and counter-argument, but for sheer, unadulterated classical detective fiction plot and counter-plot you can really do very much worse.  The lightly-combatative interplay between her two sleuths, each eager to get one up on the other, will recall Case for Three Detectives or The Murder on the Links, but this was the Batman v. Superman of its day and so both of them must emerge with some newfound respect for the other and contribute to the conclusion of the case, and Brand handles this with the most superb of light touches, too, without the need for any grandstanding, able to play them off in quiet moments that resonate perfectly.

Are there any problems?  Well, there’s one aspect of timing with the solution that seems a little off — surely it would take more than a couple of seconds to [REDACTED] the [REDACTED] — and I had no real sense of the setting beyond the vague physical location of things (the arch, the tower, the stage) relative to other things.  Additionally, Brand persists with sudden wrenching changes of viewpoint without warning that leave me feeling a little dizzy.  But it’s nothing that ruins a superbly-constructed take on the impossible crime.  And even the touches that frustrated me previously — the persistent, flippant hypocorism “Cockie” for Inspector Cockrill, say — didn’t seem as intrusive now as before.  In fact, her writing shows a marked maturity when dealing with the business of dying and fear…

Inspector Cockrill doubted whether people in these disillusioned days died proudly and happily — even for their country: but women were always sentamentalists.

…which then turns without warning into some of the most wonderfully light and breezy phrasing probably ever found in print:

The knights chorused in plushy voices made plushier by RADA that this was indeed so; and so were dismissed to their homes and eventually from the case. … There was no use cluttering up the case, thought Charlesworth, with impossible suspects.  They had quite enough to go on with.

death-of-jezebel-mpSo, in short, it’s a triumph which won’t blow you away with its atmosphere but deserves to be more widely available and just about lives up to its reputation.  It’s interesting to note that the translator of the original French edition apparently didn’t understand Brand’s solution and so made up their own which resulted in the book being castigated in the country that had given the world Noel Vindry, Pierre Boileau and Gaston Leroux.  Honestly, having now read it, I don’t see the problem: yes, there’s an expectedly nefarious take on the circumstances, but it’s actually a quite beautifully simple solution that builds on a key event earlier in the book and so should be simple enough to follow.  Maybe they got their translator from the same agency that provided the sign language guy from Nelson Mandela’s funeral, I dunno, but if anyone has any perspective on this or can add any extra information I’d appreciate it…

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars

I submit this review for the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category Building (other than house).

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23 thoughts on “#140: Death of Jezebel (1948) by Christianna Brand

  1. Back in the pre-internet days, I looked for a copy of this book for … perhaps 30 years. So, yeah, one of the scarcest titles that people actually had a chance of finding (rare, but not ridiculously impossible). All in all not one of her better-plotted works, but the complexity and sheer audacity of the ending makes up for a lot. Since I knew I’d never have another Brand, I took my time with trying to solve it and managed to get three-quarters of the way there, but still failed. That for me is a great mystery.

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    • Given how throroughly Brand assembles and then destroys her own theories, you did a good job to find anything left to get 75% of the way there! The dismissal, re-introduction, re-dismissal, and eventual realisation and importance of the central clue is one fo most brilliantly-handled misdirects I think I’ve ever read…it’s an astonishingly assured piece of writing in that regard, and the greatness of it definitely owes a huge amount not just to how clever it is but how thoroughly bamboozled it makes you so that you ignore the most important thing.

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  2. I’ve listened to everyone chatter about how hard this book is to find . . . so I feel guilty that I’ve owned my copy for 30 years! I think I read it that long ago too, for I only remember the gender of the murderer and not much else. As I recall, this one didn’t seem as great as the others I’d read. But then, dear JJ, I was quite more than “meh’d” over Green for Danger, and I was perfectly willing to overlook the ridiculousness of Tour de Force in favor of how brilliantly wonderful it was. Now I actually am afraid to re-read Brand for fear that I won’t like her nearly as much the second time around!

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    • I am more encouraged by Brand the more I read…shall go onto Tour de Force next and perhaos if I find in it the things you enjoyed it may encourage you to give her another look. Watch this space…

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  3. This was one of the first books I reviewed on my blog, back in 2011, which was a couple of years before it was reissued. I was lucky enough to find a very cheap copy in tip-top condition. So a thin sliver of guilt here, as well, but very glad this rarity is now finally back in circulation

    I know an argument can be made that Green for Danger, Tour de Force and London Particular were better novels, but I absolutely loved the grandness and complexity of the plot. On top of that the book also counts as a crossover between her two series sleuths.

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    • I will never understand the general level of enthusiasm for Green for Danger. It is such a…dull book, I singularly fail to see how all these people whose opinions I respect so much in this field continue to praise it. I’m starting to think that I might be the one with the problem, but surely that can’t be right… 😉

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  4. For some reason I defied my usual rule of saving the best for the last with Christianna Brand – I read ‘Death of Jezebel’ while ‘Heads You Lose’ was still sitting on my TBR pile. Which, in all probability, would make for a very mediocre conclusion to my reading experience of Brand. 😦

    I think what complicated my experience of ‘Death of Jezebel’ were the glowing reviews I read of it prior to reading it. For me, it definitely has the best puzzle of the five Brand novels I’ve read, but it still doesn’t outstrip ‘Green for Danger’ in terms of engaging the reader emotionally.

    I enjoyed ‘Tour De Force’, which boasts of a bold and intelligent puzzle. I recall guessing the central twist to the puzzle – which doesn’t happen very often for me – but I daresay it was because the solution was slightly too bold, rather than not intelligent enough.

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    • It certainly is. That may be Peak Crispin, alas, so if you have more of him to read then it’s a steady (and at times not-so-steady) descent from there.

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        • Of those that remain, I’d say Swan Song is the best, and the short story collection Fen Country shows the versatility and verdancy of Crispin’s imagination in a way that most collections don’t manage. Others will disagree, but for my money his books become less essential after that: Gilded Fly is entertaining but overlong and over-written, Holy Disorders is about half as good as it thinks (but contains a quite staggering ending that’s almost worht the eoffort), and Love Lies Bleeding has a clever scheme that’s spoiled by and almost entirely pointless first half…the others have little to recommend them, really, besides an occasional arch turn of phrase.

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  5. I can understand the confusion of the French translator. First, the end is really confusing with so many solutions considered. Second, the author often uses difficult words and complex sentence structures (compare with the simplicity of Agatha Christie). Third she has the habit of abruptly changing scene and characters. Translating her book would be tedious.
    I personally am not a fan of Christianna Brand.

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  6. I found a lot of silliness in the book like George’s attempt to prove that that Miss Betchley is a male, the ridiculous confessions by several people, and the purposeless, multiple re-creations towards the end.

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    • Personally, I found the multiple solutions pretty ingenious — Brand certainly has her alternatives worked out fully, and is able to dismiss all other possible solutions in a way that simply increases the magnitude of the impossibility here.

      The confessi0ns are a little over the top, I’d agree with you there, but there does seem to be a repeated facet in her books of the “sudden reveal of the killer” followed by a “oh no that was a bluff and here’s the actual killer”, and I guess that was one way of achieving this which she hadn’t used before. It’s a little silly, but didn’t bother me enough to ruin my enjoyment of the book or what she was doing by including it.

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  7. This was the first Brand book I ever read having only known of her through her short stories which occasionally popped up in the 70s issues of EQMM. I was duly impressed by it and it was one of the first books I wrote about for the mystery fan-zines. In fact I submitted my essay to two different publications and both printed it because I think at the time the book was still “very hard to find.” Glad that’s no longer the case.

    I never knew that the use of multiple solutions was Brand’s trademark. Nearly every book I read of hers after DEATH OF JEZEBEL features this motif. This one and TOUR DE FORCE are my favorites. Never read GREEN FOR DNAGE, but loved the film version. In retrospect, the only one that I think is fair to middling is SUDDENLY AT HIS RESIDENCE (aka A CROOKED WREATH). The solution to that one is totally absurd and made me laugh. But I’m sure that many people would laugh at Brand for that finale and not with her. Compared to her other mysteries, which really are often hilarious as well as ingenious, that one is just so-so.

    I’m curious: what were the titles of all those duds you read? Mostly I’d like to know because I want to know if I’ve already read them and liked them! the more I read these blogs and the comments I do seem to have least stringent criteria for a qualifying a mystery as worthwhile reading.

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        • Gosh, sorry guys, I didn’t realised I appeared to the fostering any sense of suspense over The French Powder Mystery: I bloody hated it. The foreword drags on horribly (and is dated 1930, implying that’s when JJ McQ wrote it, when the Queens are married up and retired and so the events of the book must take place much sooner…yet the plot is clearly set in 1930 or close thereto), there are twenty-eight characters listed at the front, as if throwing everyone at you beforehand is tantamount to the fairest of fair play (compare Chsitianna Brand’s list of, essentially, five suspects at the beginning of Death of Jezebel), and then the opening chapters throw this person and that person and another person and a conversation between these three people about some two other people at you like Dannay and Lee are trying to cram all 28 people in as quickly as possible…and it’s not even lightly written, proving a real effort to get even to the dead body in chapter 5. Ugh, no, I really, really, really do not want to open that book again, it’s done nothing to warm me to Queen. It will be a long time before I pick up anything by them again.

          God, it’s put me in a bad mood just thinking about it.

          Other duffs include Charles Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood, something else I tried to read from 1930 which I equally hated and have donated to the charity shop, some SF, and a weird kind of classic crime parody told through comedy pictures and giant text (The Billiard Table Murders by — I think — Glen Baxter, if you’re curious) which had two brilliant ideas in the first half and then did not know what to do after that. I get the feeling there was soemthing else, too, but I’m not going to grope too far into the recesses f memory to bring it back; whatever it is is best forgotten.

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  8. My only Brand so far was “Cat and Mouse” which felt like the parody of a Daphne Du Maurier novel crossed with a weak Agatha Christie mystery and put me off this author for, well, perhaps not forever, but if the writing style in the rest of her books is similar to that one, then it’s most likely I won’t renew my acquaintance with Ms. Brand.

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