Fear not – I haven’t abandoned my focus on GAD mysteries and impossible crime in exchange for 1970’s romance novels (well, not that I’m admitting…). Alas For Her That Met Me! is a late career novel by my personal Queen of Crime, Christianna Brand. Yes, the cover and the title may have you scratching your head, but I assure you there’s a reason behind this madness.
I’ve absolutely loved the Brand books that I’ve read so far. The author has a wit to her writing, a strange ability to forge a bond between the reader and her characters, and one of the most skilled hands at misdirection that I’ve yet to encounter. Unfortunately, she only wrote 10 murder mysteries – or so I’ve been told. I’ve found it difficult to really piece Brand’s career together, with the best reference I’ve been able to find being Wikipedia (never a good sign…). There’s the Inspector Cockrill series, for which she’s known, and then a handful of lesser known mystery novels featuring Inspector Chucky and Inspector Charlesworth – of those, only Death in High Heels really garners any attention. Brand seems to have ended her core mystery writing career in the mid-1950’s, with Tour de Force being her last “classic” title.
Of course, Brand is more widely remembered for her foray into children’s books with the Nurse Matilda series. Perhaps it’s unwise for a children’s author to publish murder mysteries, although that’s purely an unfounded theory of mine as to why Brand dropped the genre in which she so excelled. Post-Tour de Force, the only mystery novel published under her own name is 1979’s The Rose in Darkness (although A Ring of Roses was re-issued under her own name).
But what of these other books? Starrbelow, Court of Foxes, The Honey Harlot, The Brides of Aberdar, just to name a few. Brand did continue to publish books throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s (several under a series of pseudonyms like China Thompson and Annabel Jones), but I’ve never been able to get a good sense of what type of books these were. No blogs seem to be reviewing them, and the best that I’ve been able to find are paragraph-length reviews on sites like Goodreads.
One of these brief reviews caught my eye. The only review of Alas For Her That Met Me! that I could find included a sentence implying there is a chilling twist in the book. Could this be a long forgotten Brand mystery classic that never received proper attention due to being published under a pseudonym?
Christianna Brand used the name of Mary Ann Ashe to publish two books – Alas For Her That Met Me! in 1976 and A Ring of Roses in 1977. Both books appear to have been serialized in a magazine called Women’s Realm prior to being published. Would I be getting the mystery I so craved, or would I be walking foolishly into a 1970s romance novel?
Alas For Her That Met Me! is set in 1850’s Scotland and tells the story of two sisters, Adelina and Isabella Brown. Born into wealth, the sisters live an oddly shackled life, imprisoned by the social norms of the time. Although they have fine clothes and live in the most desirable section of Glasgow, they lack the ability to move freely through society. On any excursion outside of their mansion, the girls are followed by a maid whose job is to assure that they don’t make inappropriate contact with the opposite sex.
Both sisters are obsessed with a charming stranger that they frequently pass on the street, but even a mere nod in his direction or fleeting eye contact would be considered scandalous. The stranger is Louis d’Emilier, a transplant from the Channel Islands. Living in near poverty as an assistant at a seed shop, d’Emilier has delusions that he’s descended from pre-revolution French royalty and believes he’s deserving of a finer life that’s been stolen from his family. He’s noticed the attention of the Brown sisters and sees marriage to one of them as a doorway to luxury. Of course, he’s in his early thirties and they’re eighteen and sixteen, but, hey, this is the 1850s…
The early chapters jump back and forth between the point of view of the sisters and d’Emilier. We’re witness to the impossibilities that the girls must surmount to even say a word to the charming stranger, and also privy to the pains that d’Emilier takes to present the illusion that he’s a gentleman despite his humble means.
As is her style, mere pages after introducing a seemingly innocent cast of characters, Christianna Brand reveals that everything is to end in tragedy.
“Number 7, Bairnswood Square – from whose window he, who could not dream of it now, would one day be handed the cup of poisoned chocolate that would send him struggling to an agonizing death.
One year from now.”
Of course, that is one year for now. The murder doesn’t occur until roughly two thirds of the way through the book, and in the meantime, it would be fair to describe the many proceeding chapters as a historical romance. We witness the plotting of the sisters to achieve first contact with d’Emilier, and once that’s obtained, the lengths they go through to arrange a private meeting. Throughout it all, there’s a lingering question – is he really interested in Adelina or Isabella?
It’s that question upon which much of the plot hinges. The girls are stricken with the need to know whose heart d’Emilier truly desires. The question consumes them, up to the point where one sister is lightly dosed with arsenic in order to give the other the opportunity for time alone with their lover. The relationship between the once close sisters inevitably transforms into something quite dark.
Death doesn’t come in the traditional sense experienced in a detective novel, where a body is found and investigators scour the crime scene for clues. Instead, the murder catches up with the sisters at the point where the police already have substantial evidence to suspect that one of them was responsible. It’s at this point that the novel switches gear to a runaway legal thriller, with the accused placed in an impossible position of proving her innocence.
It’s at this point in the review that I’ll regretfully inform you that Alas For Her That Met Me! is in no way a mystery, at least not in the conventional GAD sense. There’s no real question as to who committed the crime once it’s been accomplished – in fact, you may well see the act coming as it’s being set up. There is an element of surprise to how things unfold, but not nearly to the degree that Christianna Brand provided with her conventional mysteries.
And yet, I really enjoyed this one. Despite Brand not providing a whodunnit-style mystery, she delivers on her most crucial skill from her earlier career – she makes you care. Somehow, with these characters separated from us not just by over one hundred years, but by an unimaginable social divide, the author binds you to their hopes and dreams. When the characters slip toward jeopardy in the final chapters, you really do care what happens. Once the murder occurred, I absolutely couldn’t put the book down.
The story also benefits from Brand’s ability to weave historical insight into the narrative seamlessly. The clothes, the setting, and the social quirks of the age all come out as natural details of the story. If you’ve found something to enjoy in John Dickson Carr’s historicals then I’m certain you’ll find something here as well.
And of course, Brand is a fun writer. The wry stream of consciousness style found in her contemporary mysteries somehow still works even when dialed back 100 years. There’s plenty to be witty about regardless of the century.
So, where do we stand? Well, if you’re looking solely for a mystery, this probably isn’t going to give you what you want. And yet, I think it might give you what you don’t know you want. If you’ve read a few Brand novels and enjoy her overall style, then there’s plenty to enjoy here. If I were to describe this as a historical romance, it would be only because much of the book involves the plotting about how to achieve an unobtainable relationship between the characters. This certainly isn’t the type of novel with a shirtless hero on the cover, and the whole of the book is rather grim throughout.
As a note – Alas For Her That Met Me! is based on a real life incident, although I’d suggest that you don’t read the actual account until you’ve read the book, as it will spoil some elements of what happens. The case is famous enough that several books, plays, television episodes, and even a movie are based on the real life situation.