For the second lovely time, my Book Club has chosen Christianna Brand, and the timing couldn’t be better. For one thing, Death of Jezebel (1948), her fifth mystery, happens to be next on my list for the glorious wallow that is the Re-Branding Project. For another, it happens to have been, for many a year, the most elusive title in the canon. I understand why Green for Danger is easy to find – there was that movie, after all – but you don’t hear people griping over scarce any copies of the other books are, and I can’t figure out why.
As for me, well, I’ve had a nondescript library copy in my hands for years and years, but I hadn’t revisited Jezebel since my long-ago first read, and I couldn’t remember much. I thought I remembered the killer, but, as it turns out, I was happily, gloriously wrong. I turned out that I had forgotten quite a lot actually, and I was excited to return to Jezebel and see what all the fuss was about. Plus, thanks to its recent reissue by the British Library, my friends at Book Club could easily join me on this sojourn.
What makes Jezebel stand out from the rest is that it is a full-blown impossible crime mystery: Isabel Drew, whose machinations around her circle of “friends” have earned her the justifiable nickname of “Jezebel,” appears to be pushed from a tower in front of thousands of witnesses. When her dead body is examined, she has been strangled – but only a ghost could have approached her to do the deed. For years, the fanboys who read Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murdersfrom cover to cover and have wondered frantically about entry #213 have been eager to get their hands on this one – and now they can! (While Suddenly at His Residence dabbled with locked rooms and missing footprints, Jezebel is a full-blown, dazzling impossible crime mystery with possibly Brand’s strongest puzzle yet.)
As for this Brand fan, I have to say that the howdunnit aspects were extremely satisfying, for reasons I will get into in the Spoiler section, but for me the best part of Death of Jezebel is that Brand gives us two detectives for the price of one. Young, stalwart Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Charlesworth (from Death in High Heels) is back, and he is joined by Inspector Cockrill (from everything else!), who is up in London from Kent in order to attend a conference that he never quite makes. Cockie is the grumpiest fish out of water who ever lived, and when murder strikes before his very eyes, he feels seriously inconvenienced to have no power or fame in the Great City.
“’Never heard of me, I suppose,’ said Cockie, wistfully.
“’Of course, Cockie, you’re used to having the Law behind you, and everybody in Kent being terrified of you, and you being the sort of center of everything . . .’
“’And you think I can’t get anywhere on my own personality?’ said Cockie grimly.”
The pairing of Cockrill and Charlesworth is an inspired and hilarious battle royale worthy of King Kong vs. Godzilla or Freddy vs. Jason. Charlesworth, safe in his professional capacity, can be both charming and condescending:
“‘Cockrill, Cockrill . . .’ said Charlesworth, thoughtfully biting upon his underlip. ‘Where have I . . .? Oh, yes! It was you who made such a muck of that hospital case down in Kent!’ Innocent of the slightest intention to wound, he shook the Inspector thoroughly by the hand. ‘Delighted to have you down here. Hang around . . .”
Privately for Charlesworth, Cockie is a hick interloper (“All very well to potter around and build up neat theories in the intervals of some tin-pot conference . . .!”), while Cockie shows us that, when push comes to shove, nobody can be more childish or irascible when it comes to a rival colleague:
“Inspector Cockrill . . . observed to himself with sardonic satisfaction that his colleague was covering up, with a lot of rather frantic badinage, the fact that he did not know what on earth to do next. With any luck, Detective Inspector Charlesworth was going to ‘make a muck’ of the Jezebel case! Until, of course, he, Cockie, the despised, the rejected, stepped in to put things straight for him.”
It’s marvellous stuff – but, of course, you want to know about the mystery. Death of Jezebel polishes the basic structure Brand had been honing throughout the 1940’s: the well-wrought cast of characters (listed for your edification at the start), a text suffused with subtle humor and extreme emotions, and a plethora of false solutions, all leading to a satisfying conclusion. The novel is suffused with a post-war sensibility without being preachy or obvious. Jobs are scarce, and some characters are hard up; others have not recovered from the bombs bursting in air, and are emotionally unstable. While Brand’s closed circles tend to be composed of generally likeable people caught in extremis, here her characters are suffused with bitterness, suffering both personal losses and deprivations caused by both the war and their own human baseness and creating her least likeable dramatis personae yet.
In a prologue, we learn that eight years earlier, a charming young soldier named Johnny Wise had killed himself after finding his girl, Perpetua Kirk, in the arms of fading actor Earl Anderson. It was Isabel Drew who set up Johnny to walk in on the pair, and she may be the coldest fish Brand has ever created, taking no blame for what happened. (“I was half-seas over myself, and he got on my nerves, standing there insisting on seeing her. How was I to know that he was such a little Puritan?”) Since that time, Perpetua has lived a shell of a life, stepping out with Earl when he’s in town – and feeling nothing.
The three are brought together in the present day to participate in a lavish medieval pageant that seems designed to advertise and sell new houses and domestic conveniences, like Flee-Flea Insect Powder and Bowels-Work Barley Sugar. In the way that mysteries work, the others who join them in this endeavor also happened to know Johnny: elderly Edgar Port, who harbors a deep crush on Isabel while his wife remains locked away in an asylum; the charming and manly Susan Betchley, and the dashing Dutchman Brian Bryan who counted Johnny among their favorite friends. Finally, we have George Exmouth, a disturbed teenager who did not know Johnny Wyse but would like to get to know Perpetua a whole lot better.
Tensions are ramped up during preparations for the pageant, which involves a team of eleven knights in armor (including Brian, George, and Earl) surrounding a battlement on which will appear the fetching Isabel reciting a speech. Isabel, Perpetua and Earl are bombarded with threatening letters, leaving one to question whether someone in the wings is out to avenge Johnny’s suicide. On the fateful day, Isabel appears on the balcony – and plunges to the ground in front of a horrified crowd. Cockie is there to observe it all, and Charlesworth soon makes his entrance. Together they realize that Isabel must have been pushed – and yet nobody could have pushed her!
Always, there is that undercurrent of Brand-ian humor that suffuses the proceedings, like the fact that the eight other knights are all unemployed actors who answer police questions “in plushy voices made plushier by RADA.” But there is something grimmer underneath, and this plotline reminds me, funnily enough, of all those 80’s slasher movies that centered on revenge for past evils or maybe the more elegant but no less horrifying giallo films of Dario Argento. (To prove this, Brand even provides an act of pure, unmitigated gore!) The author usually illustrates the lacerating effect that mutual suspicion has over a close group, but here the sickness has been festering among them all ever since Johnny’s death. For once, the horrors of murder seem poised to deliver justice for an earlier wrong and to provide the innocent with an opportunity to finally heal.
Most mystery authors toy with the concept of the “false solution,” but here Brand makes an art of it. Fully a quarter of the novel consists of our two detectives standing on the pageant stage with the suspects and taking them through one theory after another. Each “solution” appears reasonable, even as certain details appear to cancel out one after another. Most of them are presented by Charlesworth, with Cockie standing silently to the side, deriding all his efforts but using this fact or that one to “click, click, click” the proper solution in place. (Brand gets some clever use out of that “click” sound at the climax.)
What is so satisfying about the final solution is that it perfectly justifies each bizarre aspect of the case. My problem with a lot of impossible crime mysteries is that, unless the impossibility comes by accident, there never seems to be much of a good reason for the murderer to kill this way, except for dramatic effect. Here, there are reasons – and good ones – for everything that happens, and they supersede all the viable-but-wrong solutions that had been earlier presented.
If, in the end, Death of Jezebel lacks for me the emotional punch of my favorites (Green for Danger and Tour de Force), the brilliance of its puzzle and the joyful humor of the Cockrill/Charlesworth smackdown makes this a classic not to be missed. How thankful we are to the British Library for making it readily available again.
* * S P O I L E R S * *
It has often been stated in this blog that we mystery fans much prefer having the wool pulled over our eyes than being all clever and such as armchair detectives. I approached this re-read with the knowledge that Perpetua Kirk was the killer and managed to enjoy Charlesworth’s theories accusing all the others, plus the fact that everyone except Perpetua has a moment to confess to the murders and have their actions explained – wrongly, as it turns out.
Thus, when Cockrill takes over and grabs Perpetua by the wrist – the woman he has known and loved since her girlhood in Kent – and offers the best theory yet, one that gives us the motive that was staring everyone in the face and a nice explanation – I was ready to close the book with a sigh and do my write-up.
That’s why the discovery that Perpetua was not the killer (indeed she could not have killed Earl Anderson) and that Brian Bryan was a much darker and more complex character than we thought was such a wonderful surprise to me. Evidently, I had remembered the wrong solution in a mystery that contained six or seven!!!
The idea that the extra suit of armor had been used as a blind atop one of the horses had figured into several of the theories, but of course it made sense that Brian, with his equine expertise, would know best how to handle the armor and the horse. It provides a sound reason for Isabel’s body having to fall from the balcony – not merely for effect but to spook the horse. The biggest objection to his having done so was George swearing that he had looked into Brian’s piercing blue eyes as the murder occurred. Having this be the reason for Earl’s beheading is both blood-curdling and logical.
THE MYSTERIES OF CHRISTIANNA BRAND
Death in High Heels (1941)
Heads You Lose (1941)
Green for Danger (1944)
Death of Jezebel (1948)
Cat and Mouse (1950)
London Particular a.k.a. Fog of Doubt (1952)
Tour de Force (1955)
A Ring of Roses (published under the pseudonym Mary Ann Ashe – 1977)
The Rose in Darkness (1979)