#240: Tour de Force (1955) by Christianna Brand

Tour de ForceI was pretty much goaded into this, you should know.  Ben at The Green Capsule is diversifying his blogging to extend beyond the works of John Dickson Carr, and the first book he chose was Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger.  In the comments, conversation turned to other Brand titles and Brad had the temerity to doubt my fortitude: I don’t think JJ should read Tour de Force either. I couldn’t bear to think what he would make of it!  Well, challenge accepted.  Now, true, Brand and I didn’t get off to the best of starts — Green for Danger made her very much the new stepmother trying too hard to replace Agatha Christie in my affections — but we’ve had some great times since then, and so I came to this with an open mind.

Now, we mystery fans are a funny bunch.  We enjoy nothing more than being thoroughly shanghaied, led a merry-old dance for 300 pages only for the rug on which we thought we’d just got a firm purchase to be swept away and a pit of vipers to be revealed beneath us.  Nothing could be more entertaining, believe me.  And with Brad’s horror of anticipation ringing in my ears I was all prepared for the stabbing of a member of a tourist party on an Italian island when no-one who was likely to have committed the act  was out of the sight of series detective Inspector Cockrill (charmingly, Brand still christens him ‘Inspector’ even when on holiday) to dance the night away, and a staggering piece of chicanery to sideswipe me come the close.

And then, at pretty much the instant the crime was revealed, I put the book down, thought about it for approximately six seconds, and solved it.  Now, Brand and I have previous on this and she’s outfoxed me three times before, so I read on.  But the more I read, the more convinced I became.  In fact, there’s nothing in the middle of the book that contributes in any way to either the false trails she lays (which are scattered at best) or provides any further obfuscation, and I found myself getting bored and increasingly convinced.  And as nothing new came to life and one false solution followed another, I turned out to be about 90% correct.  And, if I’m honest, I found this lack of real content all rather disappointing.

It’s a clever little puzzle, no doubt, but for an apparently staggering twisty development there’s really nothing too outré for anyone to swallow.  And, really, there’s only one way it could have worked, which just sorts of screams at you.  Am I missing something, or have I just read too much of this sort of thing?  There’s nothing here more unbelievable than anything in The Problem of the Green Capsule, The Moai Island Puzzle, or The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and those novels aren’t themselves without moments where one could raise an eyebrow, scoff, and throw the thing aside.  The solution here works, and I enjoyed it tremendously (even if one moment is a slight cheat…).  And as a book, it is a lot of fun.  If Ellery Queen’s The French Powder Mystery was the lumpy and craw-obstructing stew that started my week, this was very much the delightfully delicate turrón to close things out, even if such things are best enjoyed in smaller portions.

Brand’s slightly scatty prose style is perfectly suited to marshalling her troops at the start:

They were very much like the member of any other conducted tour: thirty of them — gay ones, jolly ones, vulgar ones; refined ones looking down upon the jolly ones and hoping they wouldn’t whip out funny hats and shame them at the advertised ‘first-class hotels’; inexperienced ones who never could make out whether you called this place Mill-an or Mil-ann, experienced ones who phased them all by calling it Milano and furthermore talking about Firenze and Venezia and pronouncing the island of San Juan el Pirata, San Hoowarne…

And from there we get a textbook lesson in sketching character relationships so effortlessly quickly — a shared confidence, a look, the movement of a head or an arm — against an archly-realised background of swims in the Mediterranean “sweetened by the sewers of Rapallo”, or the beautiful brevity of tone that captures a railing “already draped with the bathing impedimentia of the hotel guests”.  Brand really does excel at atmosphere, and if some of her clues stick out a bit here and there, a few key moments manage to both hide important information and stick in the mind by languishing in the joy of mood joyfully communicated.

Tour de Force MPSo I’m in a quandary.  Even had I not solved this, I would have lost patience at the slowness of Brand’s gear changes, but the brazen way she lays her clues thick and fast at times — the unpicking of the first false solution is a doozy — can’t be dismissed.  Her characters are a delight, I love Cockrill more with every moment I spend in his company, and the fairness of this is unquestionable…but the plot lacks the finesse and over-complexity that has marked out the other books of hers I’ve read.  Brand gave up mystery writing for a long while after this, so maybe she was feeling the strain.  Who knows?  It’s good, it’s enjoyable, but it’s no staggering shocker.  Those looking for viper-filled pits beneath their rugs need not apply…

star filledstar filledstar filledstarsstars

See also

Martin Edwards: Brand’s skill with plot was formidable. She isn’t too far behind Christie and Berkeley in that respect and I also gather that in person she was truly charismatic. To my mind, her short stories tend to be more satisfying than her novels, because they are punchier and the characters in them don’t have time to grate on the reader … but for now I’ll rank Tour De Force as well-constructed, but a long way short of a masterpiece.

John Norris @ Pretty Sinister: Just when you think Brand has exhausted her supply of possible murderers and presented us with the final solution she has one more trick up her sleeve. The finale is worthy of the best of John Dickson Carr or Agatha Christie. It’s a stunner. And it’s one that still adheres to the fair play rules. Astute and canny readers can spot the correct clues (and there are many) and arrive at the correct solution.

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Don’t forget to vote for you favourites in the Fair-Play Poll, too — ends on Saturday, so act now, don’t miss out!  This is a list that will echo down the ages, here’s your chance to be a part of history…

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I submit this book for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category Knife.

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to last week’s Death of an Airman because both fall under the heading ‘Holiday Mystery’.

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26 thoughts on “#240: Tour de Force (1955) by Christianna Brand

  1. This was the first Brand I read actually, and while I have to admit I don’t remember much of it, I did enjoy the characters and all the (fake) solution throwing overall. The final solution was similar to one of my favorite episodes of (one of the best) Japanese mystery dramas, so that I felt a bit ‘cheated’ out of the experience, but still, it’s definitely not a bad story, and I’d say it works well as an introduction to Brand too.

    What I do remember about this book is, well, the actual book I read. I borrowed it from the Kyoto University Mystery Club, and it was quite clear I was probably the first in a decade or so who had even touched the small section of the bookcase with non-translated novels. Grime on my fingers just from holding it, constant sneezing each time I opened a page because of the dust…

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    • Actually, yes, you’re right that this would be a very good introduction to Brand — weird, considering it’s effectively her final mystery, but for my tastes a far better demonstration of her abilities than Green for Danger. It’s a shame there’s so little in the middle section, otherwise it could be a real treasure, despite being an easy enough puzzle to broadly guess at.

      Also, how poor is the cleaning in the KUMC? A shocking treatment of books — someone needs to set up a dusting rota!

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    • In fairness to Brand, it’s easy enough to guess because of how many clues she throws at you…they all just coalesce in the right shape once the crime is revealed (I tend to prefer going in not knowing who the victim is if I can help it); considering this is the last of the “Big Four” Brands, it will be interesting to see how she approached this sort of thing in Cat and Mouse and others…

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        • I was going with Green for Danger, Suddenly at His Residence/The Crooked Wreath, Death of Jezebel, and this one. Partly based around the discussion we had at Ben’s place in the GfD.

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          • I actually did a little research (because it has been a long time since I read these) to see if London Particular (Fog of Doubt) should supplant Suddenly at His Residence. I don’t have an answer, but reading some critiques, I did realize:

            1) Brand dabbled a lot in variations of the impossible crime
            2) she was very fond of the multiple solution! You’ve already commented on this with Tour de Force and Death of Jezebel. It’s even more apparent with the two titles I refer to above.

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          • SaHR is a very clever impossible crime puzzle and — ha! — does that French Powder Mystery thing of keeping a key piece of information back until the very last line (in this case it’s the precise workings of the impossibility…or the main aspect of it); I don’t remember a lot of false solutions in it — certainly not in the way of Jezebel — but it has that Green for Danger element of the finger pointing in a lot of directions, and maintains it brilliantly.

            Perhaps Fog of Doubt will be my next Brand, then. I have a copy, so it could be…

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  2. I did not figure out the ending, but I was younger then, and Brand has fooled me in every book but one (Fog of Doubt.) I think you misunderstood my feeling for this book and my concern about how you would react. I thought you would think the essential “trick” too far-fetched, but that did not happen. I also thought, based on your lukewarm reaction to Green for Danger, that you would miss or ignore the ineffable sadness of the ending. This is the thing that Brand does so well, imho: she makes you smile throughout at these people, and when she finally reveals the killer, it makes you sad. This rarely happens for me – certainly not with Christie, a few times with Carr. The only other author who succeeded in doing this consistently was . . . Ellery Queen (after the First Period). Now I’m not saying you’re cold as ice, but . . . At least you enjoyed the interplay of character and the humorous observations. Brand had a knack for both.

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    • It is a sad ending, you’re right, and that definitely helped to restore a bit of prestige in the closing stages; it kinda reminds me of The Devotion of Suspect X in that regard, because the final note strikes pretty hard even though what has gone before isn’t all that spectacular or engaging.

      The essential trick is great; if anything, she gives you too much — one clue in particular jumped out so gigantically I dismissed it as a red herring…but, alas, not to be…

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  3. P.S. I’m royally pissed! I looked at what you’re reviewing next and wondered, what the heck? Is there a new shin honkaku I’m not aware of? Checked Amazon and finally went to LRI. I can only guess you are now one of that halcyon few who gets review copies of new books! I guess I’m not fit to wipe your shoes anymore, mister! Well, I’ll see what you think of it and then buy my copy in a MONTH with the rest of the rabble . . .

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    • It’s due out next week, and so I’m putting up my review to coincide with that. I was one of the proof-readers, so had the massive honour of seeing it early. And, frankly, it’s just made me even more excited for whatever honkaku we can get our hands on…but more on that next week!

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  4. One of the reasons I liked this book so much is because Brand is clever enough to subvert the reader’s expectations about the nature of storytelling in the mystery context. SPOILER ALERT, don’t read the rest of this if you haven’t yet read this book, although I’ll be circumspect. The opening chapters of the book are generally in works of this period a kind of authorial “throat-clearing” that establishes the tone, the setting, the protagonists … but nothing that’s going to be really significant to the plot in terms of small clues, those always come later. There’s a perfectly fair clue that’s plunked in front of the reader very early on in this book and by the time you need it, you’ve forgotten it because it was presented as part of the throat-clearning exercise. Brand uses your expectations of the kind of material you get at the outset of any mystery novel to colour how well that material hides clues, and I think this is the cleverest kind of construction.

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    • I’m also fairly sure I know the clue you mean, but I’m very cuious now: do you really think it’s atypical to start dropping clues so early? This could be difficult to discuss without spoilers, but it doesn’t seem that great an innovation to be introducing pertinent information that early; it’s an interesting point, though…

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  5. I recall having mixed feelings about this one, in that I liked it, but wasn’t sure if I loved it as much as I did with ‘Green for Danger’ and ‘Death of Jezebel’. Together with ‘Fog of Danger’/ ‘London Particular’, this was the only other Brand title where I managed to guess what lay at the heart of the trick. But in the case of ‘Tour de Force’ the central trick was, if anything, a very bold one. For some reason, despite guessing the trick, I still liked it slightly more than ‘Crooked Wreath’, where I wasn’t even close to having a good stab at unravelling the mystery…

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    • Yeah, it is a very bold idea, and as a puzzle there’s a lot here to enjoy. My problem is that as a puzzle there are also a lot of pieces that don’t really fit — the entire middles section with Leo Rodd being summoned before the Grand High Duke of the island and told that he must provide an answer…it kinda pays off a bit with the rounds of accusation, but the entire thing makes all that feel forced, plus it also takes bloody aaaaaages to have that conversation and then go back to the hotel and tell everyone. If the pace didn’t slacked so much during this period, I’d’ve enjoyed the book a whole lot more!

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  6. I like it– the clueing is great– but I’m one who finds the central trick disturbingly implausible. Even if one could pull it off, could anyone believe they could? (A separate issue, if you think about it– as a magician, I know that that every magician has several tricks they don’t do because, even though they would fool, we have trouble believing that they would). TOUR DE FORCE approaches MURDER IN MESOPOTAMIA territory, IMO.

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    • This is where the separation of mediums comes in for me: no, I don’t believ e anyone could get away with this in real life, but I do believe it’s appropriately played in such a way within this story that given the confines of the setup and how Brand uses the…thing…she wants to use it would be achievable.

      In part to help it work there is that slight cheat, too, which enables her to continue with one aspect of the writing in this which — if suddenly dropped — would possibly give it away. I didn’t love that when it happened, but I see that as almost a tacit admission that what she does isn’t actually doable. But it’s bloody good fun!

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