RE-BRANDING (ENTR’ACTE): The Spotted Cat and Other Mysteries

Welcome back to our revisit of the glorious and all-too-brief canon of mysteries by the wonderful Christianna Brand. Last year, we covered the first five novels, and in 2023, we will tackle the final five – including the one novel I have never read and another I have absolutely no memory of whatsoever. All in good time . . . for I thought we would start the year with a palate cleanser in the form of some of Brand’s short stories. Three collections – What Dread Hand? (1968), Brand X (1974), and Buffet for Unwelcome Guests (1983) are readily available and reasonably priced on Kindle (in America only, I fear). So, of course, let’s look to the one that’s rarest of all, extremely expensive, and one of Crippen & Landru’s finest collections: The Spotted Cat and Other Mysteries from Inspector Cockrill’s Casebook.

There is so much wonderful contained in these 221 pages, and one must bestow gratitude on editor and Brand scholar Tony Medawar, who gathered the collection of all non-novel Cockrill mysteries, along with two pieces that had never been published before: the short story, “Alleybi,” and an actual three-act play called The Spotted Cat. Medawar guesses that both of these were written in the mid-1950’s, making them the earliest pieces here and making my sojourn through Brand a bit non-chronological.

The great Alastair Sim as Inspector Cockrill

Mr. Medawar also wrote an introduction, which frankly contains more and better biographical data on the author than any other source I have come across. My two favorite female mystery writers, Agatha Christie and Christianna Brand, couldn’t have been more different. Agatha, the home-schooled country girl vs, Christianna, Malaya-born and well-educated. Agatha lost her beloved father and remained strongly attached to her mother, while Christianna lost her mother, who died in childbirth after being warned to avoid further pregnancies, and never forgave her father for it. While Agatha was always shy, Christianna was vivacious and outgoing. 

But there were odd parallels as well: Agatha loved to dance, and it was at a grand ball that she met her beloved Archie. Christianna was also a great dancer – in fact, for a time she was a dance hall hostess – and through this she was invited to a West End party in 1930 where she was swept off her feet by a nice young doctor who became the love of her life. During World War II, Agatha returned to the work she had done in the previous war, as a hospital dispenser, something that had fed her knowledge of poisons and inspired her writing. Christianna was working in a stylish dress salon. There was an employee that she hated who harassed her, and she wrote Death in High Heels, her debut novel, to exorcise these feelings! 

Most intriguing are the notes Medawar provides in his Afterward about the few unpublished and/or unfinished works that I can only hope will somehow see the light of day.  (Where, oh where, is that completed 1963 The Chinese Puzzle, the seventh Cockrill mystery that features an impossible murder at a séance and co-stars none other than Mr. Cecil, the madcap clothing designer from Death in High Heels and Tour de Force!?!)

On to the stories . . . . . 

After the Event (1958)

There’s double the pleasure to be found here: first, we’re dealing with a theatrical mystery centered around a family styled after the Barrymores. Arthur Dragon and his wife had been the crown of provincial theatre until their son and daughter, both born in a trunk, took over the leading roles. Now the parents run the Dragon Theatre and produce Shakespeare’s canon, and all is well until son James marries the beautiful and ambitious Glenda Croy. Using blackmail as her tool, Glenda wrests all the leading female roles from sister-in-law Leila and basically calls the shots over every aspect of the business. 

Tensions are running high during a production of Othello, and when Glenda, playing Desdemona, threatens to ruin plans for a US tour, she is strangled in her dressing room. The family, along with three other actors, swears they were all in the Green room discussing “the problem of Glenda” when they observed through the closed blinds of her dressing room, the shadow play of her murder by a supposed lover. Of course, the truth is never as simple as it seems, especially when you’re dealing with actors!

The case is steeped in all aspects of the profession, but the true joy of this story – which ultimately has a simple solution – is in its method of storytelling. The case is being related to a group of partyers by an old man who is labeled The Great Detective. It is he who investigated the case several decades earlier, and it is a story he likes to trot out at gatherings. Unfortunately for him, one of the other guests happens to be a rude upstart named Cockrill. The give and take between the two sleuths is hilarious, and it is great fun to watch Cockie take the old ham of a Detective down several pegs and reveal the truth. 

It had been the old man’s story – for years it had been his best story, the pet white rabbit out of the conjurer’s mystery hat; and now it was spoiled by the horrid little boy who knew how the tricks were done.”

*     *     *     *     *

“Blood Brothers (1965)

This is a deliciously grubby inverted mystery set in a village where all the men seem to be poachers and every one of them has managed to sleep with the blacksmith’s wife Lydia while Black Will himself was doing a stretch in stir. Two of Lydia’s lovers happen to be identical twins called Fred and . . . well, let’s call him Narrator. Fred had Lydia first and seems put out that his brother stole her away, but the Narrator’s luck with Lydia has been equally poor, resulting in the hit-and-run death of a little boy. 

For reasons that I’ll leave you to discover yourself, the brothers decide to murder Lydia and provide each other with an alibi. Too bad for them when the case is turned over to Inspector Cockrill – although I can’t imagine any policeman not arresting both of these men for collusion. No matter, the final section where justice is meted out finds Brand at her most playful, and if it was inevitable that the brothers would pay for their evil acts (and for being such gits), there are still some nice twists regarding the settling of the case that are dealt to us right up to the final sentence. 

*     *     *     *     *

“The Hornet’s Nest” (1967)

This is the first of two stories in a row to have been nominated for an Edgar Award, and deservedly so. It chronicles the murder of the elderly and horrible Cyrus Caxton at his own marriage breakfast, where he has wed his late wife’s much younger and quite lovely nurse. The structure of the story is very much like a Brand novel in miniature: the opening scene at the breakfast reception is full of menace, all centered on the despicable groom and leading quickly to his violent death by cyanide. How convenient that there was a container of the stuff sitting on the reception table in the hall, purchased by the bride at the groom’s command in order to contend with the titular pests at home. 

Cockrill is in attendance, and before he even interviews the suspects, Brand gives us one of her typically clever foretellings: 

Mrs. Caxton, of course, the son and the stepson and the doctor. These were the principals and one might as well tease them a little and see what emerged; but for the rest of course – he knew (and so should the reader): the how and the when and the why, and therefore the who. Some details to be sorted out, naturally; but for the rest – he knew; a few words recollected, a dozen, no more – and with a little reflection, how clear it all became! Curious, thought Cockie, how two brief sentences, hardly attended to, might so twist themselves about and about as to wind themselves at last into a rope. Into a noose.”

This means that all the clues we need to solve the case have been presented before our eyes on pages one through four! After the interviews, Cockrill ponders the case with his four suspects and proposes one argument for guilt after another (shades of Death of Jezebel!) before revealing the true – and best – solution. Throughout it all, the image of the hornet community provides not just a reason for the presence of poison but a thrilling metaphor for the whole case and an important clue. Work it, Ms. Brand!

*     *     *     *     *

“Poison in the Cup” (1969)

The second Edgar nominee, and the most Columbo-esque story of them all. I’m always remarking that Brand did wonders in her novels with a cast of likeable characters, none of whom you would want to be a murderer. Her short stories are darker and the characters meaner; plus, since this is the late 60’s, Brand – never a prude, mind you – could be more sexually frank. 

This tale deals with two women, both of them despicable. Nurse Ann Kelly bangs on the door of Dr. Richard Harrison’s home to tell his wife that she and Dr. Ricky are having an affair, that she is pregnant with his child, and that she has taken arsenic in a desperate act of calling attention to herself! Brand gives us no time to sympathize with Stella Harrison, who loathes her likable husband and harbors secret passions for his stud of a medical partner, Frederick Graham. Soon, the men join the women and everyone ponders what to do about Ann. It’s Stella who secretly decides sweep away the problem by putting morphia in Ann’s coffee.

The rest of the story is a cat-and-mouse game between Stella and Inspector Cockrill. It’s refreshing that our murderess is neither smug nor particularly competent. As is usual in these stories, she has made one mistake, which Cockie reveals in the final sentence. Maybe her error was more glaring than usual, but I’m chuffed to say that I spotted it immediately! 

*     *     *     *     *

“The Telephone Call” (1973)

This short-short is another inverted tale told by a young man who has decided to murder his wealthy aunt and pin the crime on his cousin. You know he won’t get away with it because the narrative is revealed up front as his confession to Inspector Cockrill. This is much better written than one of Austin Ripley’s Minute Mysteries, but essentially that is what we have here, with Cockie stepping in at the end for Professor Fordney and revealing the single clue, based on a technological fact we should all know, that breaks the case. It’s also something like a bare-bones episode of Columbo: the narrator/murderer is suitably vain, he details the execution of his plan with the overweening confidence of a man just begging to be brought down, and finally he is hoisted on his own petard by his own “brilliant” scheme. Since the flaw in his plan really is akin to blown-up balloons not floating or chocolate melting in a hot car, the whole affair feels like a minor one. Still, it’s a quick, entertaining read. 

*     *     *     *     *

“The Kissing Cousin” (1973)

Brand’s nod to Mignon G. Eberhart, full of romance and charming houses that turn menacing, and a twist you can see coming a mile away . . . Sister and brother Franca and Bill have been summoned to live with their wealthy Great-Aunt Adela after their father dies. She puts them into the cottage outside the Hall, makes them work and slave for her, and teases them with promises of an inheritance. Both siblings have hooked up with recent flames: Franca with handsome, blond Alan and Bill with the winsome Irish redhead, Maureen. Aunt Adela, who hates people, finds solace with her enormous dog Keeper. 

The stage is set for murder . . . but whodunnit? Not Franca, whom we know to be innocent. Not Bill, who lies in a hospital with a broken leg. And not Alan or Maureen, since Adela only opened her door to family. It looks like Robert, the mysterious Australian cousin and heir, has come to town to claim his inheritance in any way he pleases! It all culminates in a Gothic finale with two pretty girls trapped in a cottage with a big ol’ dog and a shadowy figure scratching at the window. Nothing to detect here, but fun nonetheless, especially since it’s too short to wear out its welcome. Cockrill lurks at the fringes and has never been more unnecessary to a story.

*     *     *     *     *

“The Rocking Chair” (1984)

A singular story that first appeared in the August 1984 issue of The Saint Magazine, this one finds Inspector Cockrill encountering his old friend, the Duchess of -xxx, who invites him back to her castle for drinks along with Miss Maud Trumble, “rich and famous author of dozens of really quite terrible books.” Miss Trumble has a mystery to share with the Inspector, although she has so little respect for the police she figures Cockie will, er, cock it up. 

This fifteen-year-old cold case occurred on remote and insular St. Martha’s Island, and it involves two sisters: Mrs. Cray, the widow of a General, and her younger spinster sister, Miss Twining. The case was a singular one: 

A house by the lakeside on the island . . . and sitting room, three women, lying dead, spread out like a trefoil clover-leaf, their poor heads, forming the center point. Shot at very close range, three shots fired, no more – almost certainly by one or other of themselves; but the weapon so splashed with blood that no fingerprints could be lifted from it. Two quiet, pleasant, harmless sisters, known to everyone on the island; and a younger woman, known to nobody anywhere. To this day, it had never been established who in the world she could have been.

And that’s the story, by the end of which Inspector Cockrill has indeed identified who the young woman was and which of the trio had murdered the others and then turned the gun on herself. 

And if this sounds at all familiar to you, well, it certainly does to me. A detective consulting with a famous author to solve mysterious multiple deaths involving a General, his wife, and her sister! I’ve been combing the internet, looking for someone else to have found the similarities to Christie’s Elephants Can Remember. Let me say this: the late novel by Christie is one of her most problematic, with many of the problems wrought by her advanced age and state of mind. In any case, the mystery at the center of that novel might have made for a good short story; instead, it is bloated beyond belief. 

Christianna Brand, on the other hand, at a similarly advanced age, took a strangely similar situation and crafted a charming story around it. The titular rocking chair is of great importance and contributes to the haunting nature of the solution. Even though our three sleuths provide a great deal of humor here (Miss Trumble spends most of the story getting sloshed), when Cockrill relates what must have happened in that sitting room fifteen years earlier, you can’t help but feel a thrill of horror and sadness. 

There’s one to you, Ms. Brand!

*     *     *     *     *

“The Man on the Roof” (1984)

“’Have you ever heard, Duchess, of a “locked room mystery?”’

“’ you mean like detective stories? Doors, bolted, windows, barred, wastes of untrodden – ‘ she broke off, incredulous. ‘You don’t mean it? The lodge down there in the middle of all that snow – ?’”

The Duchess is back! This time, however, the lady who likes opening bazaars, guzzling vodka and putting her head together with Cockie to solve a mystery has become his adversary. Death has struck at home: the much-disliked Duke of Hawksmere, a man much given to threatening suicide, seems to have finally made good on his threats. On this snowy December night, he calls the local constabulary and tells the Sergeant that he is about to shoot himself. And only a short time later, a young constable finds the Duke lying shot through the head in the South Lodge at the edge of the Castle grounds. The doors and windows are all locked on the inside, and the only tracks laid in the pristine snow are the Constable’s bicycle tires. Aside from the Duke, nobody was present or could have gotten in or out. So it looks like the old boy has finally done himself in?

Where, then, is the gun?

This story is item #2158 in Brian Skupin’s Locked Room Murders Supplement, and I have to say that the Duchess – here as delightful as in “The Rocking-Chair” – would have made a lovely continuing character in a longer series of short stories. But then, this is all part of the real motive behind my Re-Branding Project: that of complaining how the author simply did not write enough mysteries!!!

Everyone in town hated the Duke and is thrilled that his kindly brother will be taking over and bring with him his two children, who also adore the village folk, insuring a happy Hawksmere for generations to come. With everyone thus out to obfuscate Cockie’s efforts to bring a killer to justice, will the law be satisfied? More important, will my pal JJ and all his fellow “footprints in the snow” fans be pleased with the solution?

I’m no locked room expert, but this is a wonderful story, and I think my friends would be satisfied (as, by the way, Brian Skupin is) with the multiple false solutions provided before the final twist is delivered. It’s a story that expertly combines Brand’s puzzle-making skills with her penchant for warm, loveable characters. 

*     *     *     *     *

“Alleybi”

I understand why this hadn’t been published before – at just over a page in length, it’s a trifle about a village butcher who must have killed the ex-girlfriend who showed up in town to blackmail him. But the man is alibied not only by his wife but by an elderly neighbor and fellow soccer fan who watched him giving signals about the game on the radio from his window at the time of the murder.

The case is related to Cockrill in a bar by his old nemesis, Inspector Charlesworth, but Cockie gets the last word in, not so much through shaking out the clues but simply by looking at the business the right way round. 

As I said, just a trifle – but an entertaining quickie.

*     *     *     *     *

“The Spotted Cat” (circa 1954-55)

Years ago, Tina Crowle was arrested on suspicion of murdering her invalid husband, but the machinations of her attorney, Gordon Frere, along with the testimony of Leonard Burge, her husband’s doctor – and Tina’s suspected lover –  saved her. To everyone’s surprise, Tina then married not the doctor but her lawyer. And now it is Frere who is exhibiting signs of confusion and weakness. Is it due to his alcohol consumption, or is something really wrong with Gordon? Or is Tina planning to rack up another notch on her belt? When a sudden death occurs, the victim comes as a total surprise, and it is up to Inspector Cockrill to sort out the truth. 

This was an unproduced three-act play that Brand considered turning into a novel. If she had, it would have been a novel unlike any other. Oh, sure, there’s a small circle of characters: in addition to Tina and Gordon Frere and Dr. Burge, there’s Tina’s daughter Julie Crowle, her niece and housekeeper Bunny Babbitt, and Fritz Harte, formerly Dr. Burge’s apprentice and now a rising star, who also happens to be engaged to Julie. And, yes, the whole thing takes place in Kent because, as Brand herself explains in the stage notes, 

It is, in fact, in Kent; this need not be specified but must not be impossible – to account for the presence of Inspector Cockrill who is well-known (to the author at any rate) to be in the Kent police. To use a small town outside London has further advantages, in the rapidity with which clues etc. can later be checked: for example, there are only two or three chemists.

The problem with reading this as a play is that Brand gives away secrets well before the end in her stage directions (i.e. “we don’t have to see X handling the glass but it must be possible.”) Honestly, though, if you come to this play looking for a brilliant whodunnit, or even a not-so-brilliant one, you will be disappointed. The Spotted Cat starts out as an inverted mystery and then turns into a cat and mouse game. There’s a brain operation that may or may not have actually happened (or maybe it didn’t work?) that only confuses matters. The circumstances around who actually gets murdered make it impossible to sympathize with anyone in the house, and Brand usually excelled at sympathetic closed circles. And Inspector Cockrill – who doesn’t really behave like Cockie at all, just your run-of-the-mill inspecteur d’histoire.  – doesn’t arrive until Act Three and then turns out to be merely a pawn in the schemes of the true villain, er, anti-hero, er . . . whatever.

There are clues, I suppose, but they ultimately don’t matter because Brand is playing a different game here. I enjoyed reading the play as a curiosity, but if I entertained any notions of mounting a production of it at some future date, my hopes were quickly dashed. I like a good cat and mouse game as much as the next guy, but Sleuth this ain’t!

I like the bit of fun Brand pokes at herself at the top of Act II when Tina and Gordon are doing the Times Crossword and the clue is “Three and six. ‘It’s particularly dense.’”:

TINA:              It’s ‘London Fog.’

GRAHAM:       London fog?

TINA:              it’s ‘particularly’ dense – well, London fog.

GRAHAM:       Is a London fog particularly dense? In Manchester . . .

TINA:              Oh, Graham! A London Particular, a London fog.

GRAHAM:       London Particular was a book – that woman who wrote Green for Danger.

TINA:              I know it was, I couldn’t read a word of it.

I’ll bet that joke wouldn’t have made it into the novel.

Getting your hands on a copy of The Spotted Cat is an expensive proposition at best. On the good side, most of these stories are available from the other story collections, but a few are special to this book – and they are very special indeed. 

When we return to our exploration of Brand’s novels, we’ll begin with a different sort of mystery from the classic puzzles we’ve been talking about. Cat and Mouse is a book of which I have no memory whatsoever, and so I’m looking forward to making it’s acquaintance, er, again??

8 thoughts on “RE-BRANDING (ENTR’ACTE): The Spotted Cat and Other Mysteries

  1. Oooh exciting! Christianna Brand is great, short stories are great… Christianna Brand short stories are great!
    There are some very good stories here – I think possibly her non-series ones might be even better, though. More scope to be horribly nasty creative in the endings when Cockie isn’t around.
    Unfortunately I think The Spotted Cat itself is a bit unpleasant. Brand is doing that thing she does about mental illness (actually it was the short stories that really brought that home to me), and also the play is about as subtle as a brick to the face. I don’t think you can get away with a character monologuing about how evil they are, I mean come on!
    But the rest of the stuff in this collection is great.
    A physical copy might be hard to get hold of, but poking around online I was able to read a scanned copy. I’d be thrilled if I ever managed to find a reasonably priced physical copy. I wish Crippen and Landru reprinted some of their older collections – and this one must have been before they started doing eBooks too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • She’s definitely nastier here. I’ve been contemplating whether she’s more overtly sexual (she’s pretty open in the novels, too), whether she’s playing to conventions of female types or didn’t much like her own sex. There are a ton of “bitches” and loose women here; the pair in “Poison in the Cup” are doozies, while the men wander around in a noble fog. It seems like every village man in “Blood Brothers” is a vicious thug, sharing one loose woman amongst them. Stupid men and sleazy women – that’s our Christianna Brand!!

      And yeah, the play’s pretty bad. The villains revel in their badness and talk about it way too much. I can only imagine that in a production, the audience would roar with laughter at the scene where they’re switching the cup around. And yet I don’t think any of it’s meant to be funny.

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  2. This is delightful, and it makes me eager to read the whole thing — but even a cursory search reveals what you mean by “an expensive proposition.” Ah well, I’ll keep it in mind, and keep my eyes open.

    I do have one doubt, and it has to do with the title here: I’ve only ever seen the spelling “entr’acte.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have Buffet for Unwelcome Guests and Brand X, although I’ve only dabbled a bit in the first; reading the Cockrill stories, which are the first four entries here. They are definitely good, The Hornet’s Next (aka Twist for Twist) being the best. I haven’t managed to get my hands on The Spotted Cat yet, and didn’t realize that there were so many additional Cockrill stories.

    I also didn’t realize that Brand was still doing short stories in the 80s. She only had one novel during the decade, and I hadn’t imagined that she was still working on mysteries, much less ones featuring Cockrill.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, of course, who knows, with so little biographical material on her. Certainly, a late story like “Man on the Roof” is so assured and fun that she must have been in great form up to the end of her life. But I don’t know for sure, and the story could have been written earlier and published later. I’d like to think that the lady could still turn them out to the end. And I wonder if she abandoned mystery novels because they were simply much more work than she wanted to do, and she could get her satisfaction at crafting a genre piece by turning out the occasional story.

      It’s funny to read these while rewatching The Twilight Zone. Given all the twists here and, as Veillec says above, especially in the stories NOT including Cockrill, she would have made a great writer for that series.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I do have a copy of this one (had no idea it was now so hard to get a copy) but have only ever dipped into it – not a comment on Brand, more that I rarely read short story collections straight through. As ever, thanks for the nudge Brad!

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