Heads You Lose & Death of Jezebel
Death of Jezebel by Christianna Brand
Death of Jezebel is notoriously hard to get hold of: second-hand copies are very expensive. I caught a glimpse of what seemed like a cheap version, clicked and waited.
When it turned up, much to my surprise it was an audiobook on CDs. I had not been paying enough attention. Unlike many of my blogging friends, I don’t really do audiobooks (when I’m driving I like loud music I can sing along to very tunelessly) but as this seemed to be the only way to take in this one, I listened.
Of course this means I can’t, as I usually do, include an extract, and I am also wary of making certain kinds of criticisms – it seems to be unabridged but if I missed a point I can’t go back and check, can’t be sure it wasn’t just me not listening properly.
So - I was glad to read it, though I didn’t like it as much as others do. One of the good things is that it combines knights on horseback and a cod-mediaeval pageant with a weird post-war Ideal-Homes-type exhibition.
This must make it unique.
The post-war atmosphere and the people looking and hoping for comforts in a brave new world are particularly well done.
The pageant is actually quite hard to visualize, and most of the time I just took Brand’s word for what was possible. Because the point of this one is that it is a bizarre impossible, locked-room-style mystery: everyone seems accounted for, so who could have killed the rather horrible woman playing a damsel at the top of a tower? Men in helmets and cloaks are near her, but how could they reach…? And are they identifiable in all that armour?
Incidentally, a discussion of the death of the Biblical Jezebel is similar to one in Agatha Christie's Crooked House, published a year later. (And the character of Jezebel comes up in Nabokov's Speak, Memory and in this LP Hartley novella.)
Brand brings in both her separate series policemen, Cockerill and Charlesworth, and the book goes on and ON producing false endings, viable solutions, and false confessions. She is always a great one for the very convincing explanation that falls apart, but in this case I really think she overdoes it. Locked-room fans rate it highly – I found it too difficult to keep changing my opinion of the characters, or trying to work out who was impersonating whom. And too many mentions of the mackintosh. I’m not really sure I got every detail of the crime at the end either – were there false family members or not? This is where I need a paper copy. However there was one final surprise regarding a helmet that was both horrible, and had me nodding my head in admiration…
So being in a Brand mood I then moved on to this one:
Heads You Lose by Christianna Brand
An ancient butler arrived with a loaded tray, walking as daintily as a cat upon his corn-tormented feet. ‘And a parcel has arrived for Miss Fran…. It’s on the table in the hall.’
‘It’s my new hat,’ cried Fran, leaping to her feet and clutching him by the arm. ‘Is it a hat-box, Bunsen? … How lovely! I asked them to send it down, but I never thought it would arrive so soon…not that I could wear it here, it would shake the village to its core. You wait, Granny! You’re always complaining that our hats nowadays aren’t as ridiculous as yours were in the year dot. Well, this one is.’
It certainly was. She came back with it perched on her little dark head, smiling and nodding, turning found to let them admire its wonders, blushing a little at the look of James’s sleepy brown eyes. Pendock felt his heart turn over in a sickening roll as he watched her, so sweet and gay and unaffected, with the absurd little bunch of flowers and feathers perched on her silky head. ‘Do you like it, Pen?’ she said, coming up to him, smiling innocently into his eyes.
commentary: It's a long time since I read this, and it starts off well enough, though the murders are gruesome. But half way through it all came back to me: it has a spectacularly bad ending, a grave disappointment.
It contains traces of many other Brand books: decapitations, hats and hatboxes (see also note below on the hat picture). Silly girls who are indulged by Brand, while others are criticized, though the reader cannot see a cigarette paper difference between them. In this one, Fran (who actually has a minor role in Jezebel) is completely selfish, insensitive and I thought unpleasant, but her feelings are apparently ‘real’ as opposed to a disliked character, Peppy, and a maid, who are both mocked for how they react to violent death. (The maid is hilariously ‘nervous’ that there’s a murderer about – imagine.)
It rattles along, and the body of the book is really not bad – but the ending is awful, ridiculous. Again I’m not really sure about various aspects of the solution, but I also didn’t care. It is not a good book.
Brand wrote two of the great murder stories, Green for Danger and Tour De Force, and either would be in my group of top mysteries. The others (including Jezebel) are reasonable reads. But Heads you Lose is bad, in my opinion.
The knight approaching the tower is an illustration by Kay Nielsen for a 1922 book, East of the Sun and West of the Moon, via Flickr.
The hat picture is the one I used for another hat-based Brand mystery, London Particular. The photo is from George Eastman House, and was a cover for McCall’s magazine.