A Double Dose of Christianna Brand


Heads You Lose & Death of Jezebel


Death of Jezebel by Christianna Brand

published 1948
Heads Jezebel 2

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

published 1941

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.


  1. You make such an interesting point about format, Moira. Audio, e-books, paper, etc. can really make a difference in terms of whether one enjoys a novel. To be honest, I prefer to read rather than listen, myself, 'though I've done a bit of that. But everyone's different. Sorry to hear that these didn't really do it for you. As you say, Brand did some excellent whodunits, but even the best don't always hit the mark...

    1. Thanks Margot - yes, it's interesting isn't it, and I hadn't really thought about it before. I would hesitate to make more of a judgement than I did based on an audiobook. But those who are used to them would do a better job.

  2. I think London Particular is pretty good, too. I only really listen to audiobooks if I can't sleep. They usually do the trick, but it does mean I end up having a rather disjointed experience.

    1. Yes, I liked London Particular. And am now contemplating more audiobooks. But now you've got me worried - have you had that thing where you half-listen to the radio in the morning, and are still dozing, and can't decide if you dreamt something you might have heard? I think audiobooks could add disastrously to that already-difficult mix!

    2. Yes, I have had that with the radio. But it depends why you are listening. As you can imagine I haven't been sleeping well over the last months and this is a great cure for insomnia. At the moment I am listening to Hugh Fraser reading The Hollow by the sainted AC and it doesn't much matter if I miss a bit. I just go back a bit next time and I have a print copy anyway.

    3. ... and you also probably know it sufficiently well that you can fill in the gaps!

  3. The best readers are Francis Matthews, James Saxon, Peter Davidson, Geoffrey Matthews, Bernard Archard (even tho he only read one book). You need a performance, not a mere reading. I started listening to Glenda Jackson doing Pride and Prejudice and she was rotten! These days they hire Anton Lesser or David Timson (both dull), and abridge the books.

    1. Helpful tips, thanks. It's a whole new world to me.

  4. I have never tried listening to the audio version of a book. The idea does not appeal to me, although I can see how some of them might be really good.

    Unless I luck upon a copy at a reasonable price someday I will not be reading Death of Jezebel. Heads You Lose was the first Christianna Brand book I read after starting the blog and I did not like it at all.

    1. I was the same, but I have to say the experience was positive. I don't think anyone would come away with a good opinion of Brand if Heads was the first one they read.

  5. OMG, that woman looks like she has a bunch of cilantro tied to her head!

    About a billion years ago on a road trip, my sister and I listened to James Herriott read his books. I enjoyed the Scottish accent, and I knew most of the stories from the TV show, so it was easy to follow. But generally I'm like you, Moira. I like to bring music that I blast to prevent me from hearing myself and just belt it out along with the CD. Cat Stevens, Bruce Springsteen and Stan Rogers (fabulous Canadian folksinger who died much too young) are favs. I drive the I5 from Los Angeles to the Bay Area (San Francisco) or Eureka (northernmost point in California) which is a long, notoriously boring drive. Singing keeps me awake.

    Neither of these two books sound very appealing to me. I just finished "After the Crash" and rather enjoyed that one. I guessed what was going on, but it wasn't too stupidly obvious. It wasn't great literature, but it was compulsively readable.

    1. Yes, it's a pity I like music so much or I might get more listening done. Don't know Stan Rogers, but yes to Bruce, also Van Morrison and Bob Dylan.
      After the Crash was the perfect vacation read I thought.


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