Tour de Force – Christianna Brand (1955)

TourDeForceWhen it comes to mysteries, they call her The Queen of Hearts.  Er…, “they” being Brad at Ah Sweet Mystery.  But he’s right.  If ever an author could build a cast of suspects in such a way that the final reveal of the true culprit could be so heart-wrenching, it’s Christianna Brand.  She’s crafty too, laying key clues out in plain sight, but framing them in such a way that the reader is incapable of understanding what they’re seeing.

The trouble with Brand is that she only wrote 10 or so mystery novels (we’ll discuss the exact number later).  Of those, the most acclaimed are the big four – Green for Danger, Suddenly at His Residence (also released as The Crooked Wreath), Death of Jezebel, and Tour de Force – although I’d argue that Fog of Doubt deserves to be just as well regarded.  I’ve been excited to read Tour de Force for a while, as it’s considered by many to be one of Brand’s trickiest mysteries, and, well, the title kind of implies it’s going to be a masterpiece…

I did have my apprehensions though.  JJ reviewed this over at The Invisible Event several months ago, and he didn’t give it the enthusiastic praise that I was expecting.  Although he criticized it for lagging a bit in the middle (it kind of does), his more important issue was that he immediately saw through the deception for the main trick of the book.

This, of course, terrified me.  If JJ had seen through the trick, would I be at risk of seeing through it as well?  You see, as much fun as it is to play detective when I read this sort of story, I love nothing more than being blown away by the misdirection in the ending.  Fog of Doubt will stay with me always, not just because of Brand’s witty prose, but because of the absolutely face-melting trick that she played on me as a reader.  A comment in JJ’s review had me petrified that I might have that experience taken away from me with Tour de Force.

And then, at pretty much the instant the crime was revealed, I put the book down, thought about it for approximately six seconds, and solved it.

The crime in question is an interesting one.  A group of tourists on a trip through the Mediterranean stop for a several night stay at the fictional island principality of San Juan de Pirata.  The most unlikable of the group is found murdered in a hotel room, laid out on the bed in an oddly ceremonial fashion.  The problem is, none of the rest of the tourists could have committed the murder.  They were all down at the beach, and constantly within sight of one of their ranks – the vacationing Inspector Cockrill.  The detective is almost certain that none of the tourists could have slipped away to accomplish the murder without being seen, and even if they had pulled of a magnificent feat of stealth, he would have noticed them gone over the amount of time necessary to fully execute the…er…execution.

The plot takes a delightful turn due to the setting.  The island nation is stuck in time, and while the crime may have been simple to solve in England, Cockrill and the local police lack the tools to perform even a basic forensic analysis.  The local police are somewhat bumbling and corrupt, which creates a danger – they intend to find and hang a killer one way or another, and they intend to do it soon.

This puts some pressure on Cockrill to get to the bottom of the case.  After all, if Cockrill says that none of the other members of the tour group could have committed the murder, then perhaps he did…

The threat of action by the local police leads the group to produce a number of potential solutions to the crime, although none really border on brilliant.  Still, it keeps the story moving and helps the reader exercise their own theories about how an improbable murder could have been carried out.

Speaking of theories… there I am, sitting on a plane reading Tour de Force and thoroughly enjoying it – all while pulling the mental gymnastics of trying not to solve the crime.  My plane lands and I start the hour long drive home, filling my mind with thoughts of work and the music I’m listening to – anything but thinking through the mystery.  And, of course, midway home, the solution just bursts into my mind.

Now, I’m going to have to say, JJ and I are both borderline geniuses (you already knew that of course).  We must be, because this is a really tricky solution, and it just came naturally to our oversized intellects.  Or, it could be that we’ve just read enough of these books that we know a certain way to think about a certain type of problem.

Well, there I had it.  I was about 1/3 of the way through the book, and I had my unwanted solution.  And now, as each remaining chapter passed me by, that solution was becoming more and more solid, bolstered by subtle elements in the story.  To that effect, I can see how the middle of the book dragged for JJ.  I could say that I was starting to get impatient myself.  Christianna Brand has a marvelous way of writing her characters and dialog – I could read anything by her, even if it lacked a mystery – but I wanted to get to the end.  I could already see how it would inevitably play out; I just needed the narrative to connect the foregone dots.

Ah, but I mentioned above that Brand is crafty.  She knew I was coming and had a twist waiting for me.  I’m reminded of a quote by John Dickson Carr in his final novel, The Hungry Goblin:

First decide what the average reader will suspect – anticipate it, and fool him.  Then decide what the clever reader will suspect – anticipate it, and fool him.  Thus, all openly, you prepare your thunderbolt for the end.”

Well, I’m the clever reader in this case.  Brand had a well laid trap for me – a brilliant false solution that could have just as easily been the true solution.  And when the trap was sprung with 1/5 of the book remaining, I found myself suddenly naked out in the open with no alternative.  All my stock had been placed in a theory that was neatly ripped to shreds.

When the true solution came chapters later, it was a complete shock.  Between the false solution and the true solution, I’d say the book thoroughly deserve’s its reputation as one of Brand’s trickiest.

Of course, there is a bit of a danger in laying the trap of a super clever false solution, especially when it is spotted by the reader early on.  That clever reader is now left to cover a significant swath of story, all the while thinking they have everything completely figured out.  I had a similar experience with red herrings in The Ten Teacups and Castle Skull by John Dickson Carr.  Yet, in both those Carr examples, the author left a very subtle clue that a keen reader could latch on to.  In the case of Tour de Force, Brand never even hints at the false solution, instead leaving it to the well traveled reader to glom to on their own.

Regardless, the downside is that a reader having spied the false solution now has a significant amount of reading left with little payoff to anticipate.  Contrast this with my sister, who I passed Tour de Force off to after I had finished.  She was completely caught off guard by the false solution, and commented that the book was a quick read and she couldn’t put it down.

Tour de Force was a memorable experience, helped by Brand’s clever twists of conversation and the character’s lives she effortlessly drags you into.  If you’ve read any of her other books, you’ll be familiar with her quirky writing style that’s just fun to read.  Combine that with a tricky puzzle and strong solution, and this is a must read for anyone who loves the genre.


 

As mentioned above, Christianna Brand is typically recognized as having written ten mystery novels, in addition to short stories that have been collected in several books.  I’ve been curious about the rest of her catalogue, because I’ve seen various other titles listed on mystery sites, and some of the descriptions of the books sound as if there’s a mystery element to them.  But how strong a mystery?

Here’s a bit of a plea to anyone who has a bit more experience with Brand under their belt.  Do any of the following novels fit the category of mystery?  If so, are any of them on the same level as her more well known Inspector Cockrill/Charlesworth/Chucky books?

  • The Three Cornered Halo
  • Starrbelow
  • Court of Foxes
  • Alas, for Her That Met Me! – I read a review that implied that this had a pretty surprising twist
  • The Honey Harlot
  • The Brides of Aberdar
  • Heaven Knows Who – this is a non-fictional embellishment of a murder trial from the nineteenth century.
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23 thoughts on “Tour de Force – Christianna Brand (1955)”

  1. I think Tour de Force and Suddenly At His Residence are my two favourites of hers. Although I must say I don’t remember ever coming across the volumes you mention at the end; perhaps they’ll be more available as e-books soon.
    Very early in my mystery-reading days I had the experience you describe, where I smugly thought I’d solved The Greek Coffin Mystery and continued to think so right up until after the Challenge to the Reader. It was a horrible but strangely delightful experience, to be so thoroughly hocussed, and I have never forgotten it.
    But Brand is good at drawing you into her narrative and making you think you’re smart. I’ve forgotten the details, but at one small point in Tour de Force Mr. Cecil and Louli differ as to the pronunciation of something (“sangwiches” comes to mind). Brand lets you know that Louli is of a higher social class than Cecil for knowing where the mispronunciation originates, and her tone is such that she’s assuming you do too; in two sentences or so. A lovely little moment of writing.

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    1. Four or five of the titles I mentioned are available as ebooks, although most of the others can be found in physical form online for $10 if you’re patient enough. Of course, I’d prefer to know what I’m getting into before I drop $10.

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  2. I was thoroughly fooled when I read this – but I enjoyed it even more on rereading, because I could see how Brand worked the trick, and just how close she came to letting the cat out of the bag. It’s beautifully constructed and clued, and as fine an example of misdirection and sentences with double meaning as you’ll find in the three big C’s (JDC, AC, GKC).

    Back in the late ’90s/early 2000s, when I first discovered Brand, FOG OF DOUBT was one of the “big” name Brands. Carroll & Graf reprinted it, with a rave quote from Anthony Boucher on the cover, and an introduction by Brand herself, saying it was her favorite of her books.

    Are the late Brands available as ebooks? The only ones listed on Amazon are in Spanish and German!

    BUFFET FOR UNWELCOME GUESTS (great short story collection) has an excellent overview of Brand’s books.

    Here are blurbs for THE HONEY HARLOT (mystery/romance?) and THE BRIDES OF ABERDAR (Gothic)

    THE HONEY HARLOT – 1978 W.H. Allen
    The Honey Harlot is the story of two obsessions. The obsession of a young girl that she must save her husband’s soul from hell; and the obsession of a waterfront harlot that she shall gain him, body and soul, for her own.
    And it is the story of a mystery—the true story of the sailing ship, Mary Celeste, which a hundred years ago was found drifting in mid-Atlantic with not a living soul aboard her.
    An ‘if’ story, a story of ‘let’s suppose’. Every detail here presented is true, the characters are the real people, by name and description, who really did sail in a real ship from New York in 1872; who, for no reason ever discovered, at a moment’s notice abandoned her and have never been seen or heard of again to this day.
    But let’s suppose… Let’s suppose that a girl had smuggled herself aboard—Mary, the waterside harlot whose hair was the colour of dark honey, curling about her beautiful shoulders, who herself was as sweet as honey—until she fell in love with a man no less violent in his passions than she, but whose soul was as deep and dark as her own was fair and free. What might have happened then?

    THE BRIDES OF ABERDAR – 1983 Michael Joseph
    She stands on the threshold of a new life—the little governess with her sad, scarred face; and into her empty arms come flying the two belovéd children who will one day grow up to become “the brides of Aberdar”. And in what strange circumstance will she herself become a bride?
    A man stands watching them, whose blue glance is filled with a foreboding dread: for he alone knows the threat of the ancient anathema that hangs over them, all three.
    Christianna Brand, well known for her masterly novels of crime and detection, now turns to a story of high suspense—of love and passion and hate in the heavy old Tudor manor house of Aberdar, where in each new generation the bright ghosts return to haunt again.
    So beautiful, so gay and delightful to allure and charm…
    So malevolent to enmesh and destroy.

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    1. My Amazon search (US-based) shows pretty much all of the late Brand’s available as ebooks. For example:

      The blurbs that you posted are similar to the others that I’ve read – there seems to be some element of mystery, and even though they aren’t direct detective novels, I could imagine Brand still dropping a jaw dropping twist towards the end. Anyway, my curiosity is piqued. I’ll have to seek a few of these out and try them.

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  3. Hang on, whaddaya mean by “borderline”…?

    See, you’ve sprug a twist of your own on me there, because I was nodding away sagely in reminisence…and then it turns out you’re not in the club after all! And I was all ready with a “Yeah, and the false solution’s terrible, too, ain’t it?” comment and everything. The moment of reveal here is exceptional, and the writing is generally pretty witty and sharp — though, ugh, the whole “blame the easiest person” strand is so lazily cariacatured that I found it difficult to care — there’s just the small matter of (fine, I admit it) having read too much of this sort of thing to be waylaid by a simple trick such as this. Yes, simple. Fight me.

    There are other books whose mysteries I’ve solved along the way and still had huge fun reading — The Bishop’s Sword by Norman Berrow has <i<four impossibilities and I solved every single one almost as soon as they happened, but it’s such a brilliant integration of ituation into plot that I just kept going with a huge smile on my face and loved every minute. As Brad said of this, the second you see through the scheme it’s over, and for me there wasn’t enough elsewhere to justify the experience.

    I am, however, delighted that your education with Brand continues to be so enjoyable. Crooked Wreath and Death of Jezebel are classics for the ages, and she could spring a surprise and (usually!) hide a culprit with a skill reserved for only the few at the very top table in this regard.

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    1. You’re saying that not only did you see the false solution, but you saw all the way to the true one? If so, my hat is truly off to you (although I mourn for you as well, as we all really want to be fooled).

      It is taking everything in my power to not just immediately read The Crooked Wreath. At least I’m having trouble tracking down Death of Jezebel, so I can’t burn through that.

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      1. Not that I saw the false solution, no, but that at the time of the false solution I saw that it was clearly complete crap and not to be taken seriously (also, I had already figured out the answer, so I hguess I was going to see through anything else…).

        Isn’t DoJ on Kindle in the US? I thought MysteriousPress had ebook versions of all these out over there…

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      2. DoJ is available in ebook form, but I haven’t warmed to that format yet. I figure if I’m patient I’ll find a tangible copy eventually. Colin claimed he picked up a copy for $3 on eBay !!!

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  4. bookfinder.com is the best place to compare prices on out-of-print books. If you’re not fussy about condition, there’s a “poor” copy of The Crooked Wreath for $14.43 plus shipping available from Canada; Good or Very Good copies are $45 – $50 (I had thought Death of Jezebel had been reprinted but it appears to be an audio-book). It took me a while to find an affordable copy of Death of Jezebel, but it’s good enough that it’s on my TBRR list (“to be re-read,” a sub-set of my bucket list), so maybe you want more than a “poor” copy. (Or maybe it’s missing the last chapter. In the movie BEDAZZLED, one of Peter Cook’s evil deeds as the Devil is to remove the last few pages of Agatha Christie novels, then replace them on the bookstore shelf.)

    I too like to be fooled. I remember smugly thinking I’d solved Anthony Berkeley’s TOP STORY MURDER early on, only to find that the author had set me up; my solution was produced in the last chapter–and debunked with three pages to go. I should have expected it. Berkeley had also fooled me in THE POISONED CHOCOLATES CASE, where I came up with two good solutions early on, and wavered between which was the false and which the true solution–only to realize, with two chapters to go, that both were false solutions. I had no idea who the murderer was, and actually started re-reading the book from the beginning…and after a few chapters it hit me. It’s exhilarating to be wrong. (Well, it is when an expert fools you. I’ve also had books where I think Aha, I’ve got it, then I realize No, that won’t work, there’s a big flaw. And it turns out that IS the solution, and the author either overlooked the flaw, or more likely hoped the reader would. Ugh.)

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    1. I’ve been abstaining from reading The Poisoned Chocolates Case for some time now. It’s actually the first non-Carr GAD novel that I purchased. I’ve known that it has quite a number of false solutions and I’m happy to hear that you were substantially fooled by them.

      I recently completed a Christie novel (which one? Stay tuned…) where I entered the final chapter thinking I knew exactly how it was all going to work out. I’d already considered all other explanations, and even if I was wrong, the alternatives couldn’t be that good. I’m happy to say that I was pleasantly wrong!

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  5. I have “The Honey Harlot”, and I re-read it not too long ago, but my impressions aren’t very good. It’s a psychological crime novel of the type I don’t particularly like. Yes, there is a mystery at the bottom of it, but on the whole it’s one of those Barbara Vine/Minette Walters type books (I imagine, having never read their psychological stuff) that I thoroughly dislike.

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  6. Finally! You read a Christie and it fooled you! I can’t wait to hear which one. And I’m so glad you liked this. It’s an interesting point you make: I’m sure I have also figured out a false solution early, waited impatiently to be proved right – to the point of getting a little bored – and then had the rug pulled out from under me. Does that make the book less than enjoyable because I spent so much time angry that I was “right?”

    I was totally fooled by this one and, consequently, quite moved by the ending and named this my favorite Brand. In contrast, I figured out the solution to Fog of Doubt On page . . . well, I can’t say, as it would give the whole show away, but I thin’ you know what page!

    If you and your wife ever make it to California, we can meet for coffee, and I’ll bring my copy of DoJ for you to read while I sip my latte! 🙂

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    1. You’d be sipping gallons of latte at the rate that I read.

      I do propose that being certain you’ve solved a mystery slightly drags it down. There is a bit of satisfaction as you receive repeat confirmations that your theory is correct, but I think that’s outweighed by the curiosity and passion being stripped away from the reading experience. Of course, the quality of writing/plotting matters too.

      I thoroughly enjoyed Death on the Nile and Crooked House even though I realized the solution right away – they never dragged at all because the stories were so good.

      The Ten Teacups has a bit of a slow mid-section, and so me having seized on a subtle red herring probably made it feel a bit slower.

      My latest Christie was a treat to read throughout, and I didn’t stumble to the false solution until fairly late in the book. Of course, I’ll go into much more detail in my review…

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  7. Thanks for the review. 🙂 I liked ‘Tour de Force’ better than ‘Suddenly at His Residence’ as a story – even though I guessed the central twist to the former but not the latter. The only non-detective Brand novel I’ve read is ‘Cat and Mouse’, which certainly had mystery elements, even though as a story it would fit better under the genre of gothic romance.

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    1. I’ve recently purchased a few of these “gothic romance” novels that Brand published in her later years. It’s odd how she shifted focus to that genre – it’s just the sort of subject that I can picture characters in her early novels blithely making fun of.

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