LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
[Louli] emerged at this moment, red poppies flaring on a diminutive white satin bikini bathing-suit. She looked at him, she thought, a trifle furtively, standing fiddling with the strap of her brassiere. ‘Hallo, Inspector. Have – have the chaps gone on?’
‘Gone on?’ said Cockie.
‘To watch La Lane diving.’
‘Oh, I’d forgotten,’ said Cockie. At luncheon Vanda Lane, one eye on Leo Rodd, had promised to give an exhibition of her skill… He said that yes, Leo Rodd had gone along, adding, somewhat to his dismay in a faintly warning tone: ‘And Mrs Rodd.’
It checked her. She had started to move off without another word but now she stopped abruptly and her hand jerked on the narrow strap. ‘Oh blast! – now I’ve split the thing.’ She stood looking down uncertainly, chin humped on breast, and finally moved on down the steps, one hand holding the split white satin together, the other swinging a gay red plastic beach bag.
commentary: It's still summer in the UK, there's a bank holiday, and some sunshine, and perhaps the prospect of holidays abroad - and this is the ideal book.
There are some crime stories with such memorable endings that you can never re-read in innocence – Agatha Christie’s Orient Express, Roger Ackroyd, & Crooked House for example. (That may be the advantage of a lesser book, in that you can read it again and not recall the details.)
Christianna Brand’s Tour de Force lives up to its name – I don’t think anyone could read it and not recall and admire the trick she plays on the reader. It’s a stunner, very clever indeed.
But I enjoyed re-reading it to watch how she did it, how she planted the clues (and tbh I still couldn’t work out some of the details) and to admire the plotting. The book follows a group of British holiday-makers on a guided tour around the Med, and onto the island of San Juan el Pirata – a place that also features in Brand’s later book, The Rose in Darkness, recently on the blog. Her series sleuth Inspector Cockerill is one of the group – there is also the beautiful bright and cheery Louli, the subdued and much duller Vanda, the dress designer Cecil (of Cristoph et cie, featured in Death in High Heels), the older spinster, the slightly miserable couple. Troubles and tensions are swirling among the group, and eventually one of their number is found dead, after an afternoon where surely everyone was on the beach, in sight of each other…
The portrayal of the holiday, the Brits abroad, the cocky foreign courier, and the corrupt police on the island are rather clichéd and occasionally tiresome. There are national stereotypes and funny pronunciations and silly jokes. If you were generous, you could say it was light-hearted.
In an earlier Brand, Suddenly at His Residence , the bikinis (‘kestos and pants thing’) were important – could a weapon be hidden in one? That isn’t the case this time, but as ever with Brand, the clothes are very very important…
There’s also this:
[Louli], also, was tremendously decorative that day, in a skirt of bold patchwork lined with scarlet…
The explanation at the end does invite some unanswered questions, but all is forgiven because of the cleverness of the plot, and of several of the incidental clues.
The bikini is a very modern one, from River Island.
The skirt is from a 1950s Sears catalogue.