When 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
- 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.