As much as I’ll mourn my circumstances when I finish my final John Dickson Carr novel, I think I’ll be grieving my conclusion of Christianna Brand just as much. There’s just so much to like about her as an author. The wit, the strange rambling prose, the puzzles, the characters. My first brush with her, Green for Danger, showed me a depth to a GAD story that I hadn’t seen before. Yes, the impossible crime was luscious – a man murdered on an operating table in full view of a surgical team – but it was Brand’s deft handling of the characters that really made the difference. By the end of the story, the author had created such a bond between the cast and the reader that any solution was bound to be devastating. And it was.
Of course, Green with Danger is probably Brand’s most famous book. How would a lesser known title fair? I picked up Fog of Doubt (also released as London Particular) based on a comment that it featured a similarly wrenching ending. It definitely delivered on that.
A young woman, Rosie, has recently returned from a year in Geneva – her time spent skipping school and jumping from fling to fling. Back home, she finds herself in a tough spot. She’s pregnant, but doesn’t want to have the baby – a fact that she confides to anyone who she feels might help with her predicament. Tedward, the doting older doctor who not-so-secretly loves her; her sister in-law Mathilda, with who she lives; her kindly but senile grandmother; Mellisa, the untrustworthy young cook who lives in the basement; Damien, the communist sympathizer with who she’s shared a casual romance. Everyone, that is, except her brother Thomas, a doctor and almost father-figure. In each case, Rosie tells a tale that she thinks will make her confidant the most likely to sympathize and help her out. These scattered embellishments will form the intricate layers of the crime that is to follow.
Things quickly get interesting with the visit of Raoul Vernet – an old flame of Mathilda’s. Raoul is in London on business and brings news for Mathilda about the time he spent watching over Rosie in Geneva. Each character in the story has a slightly different view of who Raoul is and what his visit might signify, thanks to Rosie’s loquacity. Is he the salacious lover from Geneva who took advantage of a young woman away from home? Or, does he plan to expose Rosie’s forays into the indecent to Mathilda? Or, has he come to rekindle an old romance?
The night of Raoul’s visit finds London enveloped in unusually dense fog. As Mathilda and Raoul meet, the rest of the characters are out on various errands. They all converge together late in the evening at the scene of a grisly crime – Raoul is found laying dead in the foyer of Mathilda’s home, his head bashed in with a mastoid mallet.
“Raoul, the too-suave, the invulnerable, the didactic, the smug, who now had been hauled off to lie among strangers here in this strange land, until his poor, dissected, degutted, cobbled-up body could be shipped home to the very few people who had loved him there.”
The actual crime is fairly straight forward – someone simply bludgeoned the man to death. There is no whiff of impossibility, no real indication of anything clever. But, this is Christianna Brand… you can bet your life that something clever is bubbling under the surface.
Of course, me being the genius detective, I immediately clued into some seemingly innocent goings on that smelled of trouble. Poor me, legitimately thinking that I had spotted the true killer before the murder had actually even occurred. By the end, Brand had me in such a fog of doubt that I was very seriously advancing the theory that the murder had been committed by Mathilda’s two year old toddler.
That’s Brand for you. Everything sails on so innocently that you’re dodging shadows in an attempt to see clues. Inspector Cockrill shows up, convinced by Rosie to prove the family innocent after evidence suggests to the police that the murder was an inside job and not just a fleeting burglary. Cockrill isn’t thrilled to find Detective Charlesworth assigned to the investigation, and several references are made to “The Jezebel case” (thankfully without spoilers).
Initially Thomas (Rosie’s brother) is suspected of the murder, but then Brand starts playing with us. By the end of the novel, every single suspect will fall under direct suspicion, most after flat out admitting to having committed the crime. In this, the author summons up dual dimensions of mystery out of a seemingly straight forward murder – why would each of the suspects have had motive to kill Raoul, and why would each of the suspects have motive to falsely admit to the crime?
We’re not just treated to Brand’s stiletto sharp knack for crafting a puzzle and seeding doubt, but the entire story is poured forth in Brand’s strange prose – semi-conversational sentences that run on for what seems like multiple paragraphs. Jarring at first, her style provides a wit that makes the book a pure joy to read and magically fleshes the characters out into real people you can relate to.
“And yet, that last was not strictly true; for some weeks ago, while Rosie was still in Switzerland, Mellisa, having read in a woman’s magazine that the way to make new friends was to go in for indoor skating and contrive to take a tumble (thus figuratively at any rate breaking the ice) had duly skated and duly fallen, though only in the literal sense; but literally and figuratively, both, had duly been picked up.”
Of course, that isn’t without consequence. By the end of the story, you’ll feel such a bond with each character and the close knit community they make up, that any potential resolution is devastating. Oh, and this one pays off for sure. In a similar sense to Ellery Queen’s The French Powder Mystery, the payout occurs very very late in the story. This time, its not who committed the murder – that you’ll have figured out several pages earlier. The Fog of Doubt leaves you astounded by the ‘how’ – a clue waved so openly in your face for so long that I reject the idea of a reader who doesn’t walk away feeling like an idiot. Sure, I clued into it about two pages early, but that didn’t mask the sting at all.
And that’s why I look forward to the rest of my time spent with Christianna Brand. Yeah, there’s the big name book, The Death of Jezebel, that I’ll no doubt love as soon as I can get my hands on a physical copy without spending $100 (less than $10 will do, thank you very much). Then there’s Suddenly At His Residence and Tour de Force, which sound very much in my vein. But there’s about 15 or so other mystery titles that I have my eyes on. I’m told that Brand’s quality is constrained to a few marquee titles. For now, I’ll naively assume that isn’t true until I learn otherwise. Of course, feel free to discuss…