Cat and Mouse – Christianna Brand (1950)

CatAndMouseCat and Mouse is a bit of an off the radar Christianna Brand novel from what I’ve seen.  Most reviews focus entirely on the well know Inspector Cockrill series – Heads You Lose, Green for Danger, Suddenly at His Residence, Death of Jezebel, Fog of Doubt, and Tour de Force – with the occasional review of Death in High Heels (one of Brand’s first novels).  That’s odd to me, since 1. Everything I’ve read by Christianna Brand so far is an absolute classic  2. Brand wrote more than an equal number of non-Cockrill mystery novels.

So what’s the deal?  Why do people only talk about the Cockrill novels?  Are the rest garbage or have they simply been less obtainable?  I’ve started to explore that question already with my review of Alas, For Her That Met Me! (published under the name of Mary Ann Ashe).  While I wouldn’t categorize that novel as a traditional mystery, it had enough of the elements that I think fans of at least John Dickson Carr’s historical mysteries would appreciate.

Cat and Mouse is not your typical Golden Age detective novel.  Instead, I think this may qualify more as belonging to the sub-genre popularized by Mary Roberts Rinehart – Had I But Known.  In such a novel, a plucky well intentioned woman stumbles upon a mystery larger than anyone could reasonably handle, and naturally does the most unnatural thing – avoids simply talking to the police.  That’s a bit of a hash condemnation of Cat and Mouse, but we’re definitely dealing with a gothic tinged romance novel in which any reader’s mind is constantly bleating “just get out of there.”

Brand provides a bit of justification to this by setting the novel in a remote town in Wales.  Katinka Jones, a magazine columnist, has traveled to her ancestral home for a bit of vacation.  On a lark she decides to seeks out a woman named Amista who frequently writes letters to her publication’s advice column.  Oddly, none of the locals have heard of Amista.  The plot thickens when a visit to Amista’s home finds all inhabitants denying any knowledge of the woman.  How could that be when Amista’s letters contained such accurate descriptions of all of the occupants and the home?

To explore the plot further doesn’t seem proper, as this is one of those books where the reading experience is one surprise followed by another.  Granted, these surprises are very much up the Had I But Known alley, with our heroine finding herself in increasingly bewildering situations, all while tinged with a strange sort of gothic romance.

Although I’ll leave the exploration of the plot up to the reader, I’ll reveal that the initial thread of mystery is nearly tied up well short of the half way point.  That doesn’t feel like a spoiler because the obvious question is what eats up the second half of the novel.  Well, you’ll get no answers here.  Think about it this way though – you’ve made it partway through Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case and one of the amateur detectives has pitched a solution to the crime.  Do you put the book down at that point?

It’s worth noting that Cat and Mouse came out in 1950 – it’s Brand’s followup to Death of Jezebel, and was followed itself by Fog of Doubt and Tour De Force (ignoring Brand’s sole foray into juvenile detective fiction, 1949’s Welcome to Danger).  If you’ve read a significant amount of Christianna Brand, let that fact sink in your mind for a minute.  This isn’t some 1960/70’s later career exploration; this is the author right around top form.  What do you get out of the second half of this book?

Well, I’ll somewhat topple the tower that I just built.  Cat and Mouse is not a traditional detective novel, and so you shouldn’t be expecting it to play out with the typical murder followed by investigation.  You’re not going to get a similar experience to some of the books I just mentioned because this is a completely different type of story. 

With that tower toppled, let me build it back up.  Brand is famous for her uncanny ability to drop critical pieces of information in front of the reader without them knowing.  It’s simply maddening looking back at this book and realizing how many times you watched key clues get laid out.  Plus, it’s an ever evolving story, kind of like one of those fractal videos – the shape somewhat remains the same, and yet it’s constantly changing in a hypnotizing way.  This is a story where 30 times you think you know what is really happening, and 29 times you are wrong.

My 1952 Avon edition arrived in absolute mint condition, and by the end of the read it was curled by use.  The final 50 pages are epic, with one eye bulging turn after another.  Remember, you’re not dealing with standard detective fair, so don’t expect the classic denouement.  Still, you’ll get jolt after jolt.  I’m reminded of an infamous chapter midway through Paul Halter’s The Seventh Hypothesis, in which the story twists, stretches, and folds on itself like taffy.  Cat and Mouse doesn’t match that in terms of condensed acrobatics, but the effect is the same across the final run of chapters.

Top notch Brand?  Mmm, no – because I suspect everyone reading this is more like me, looking for that experience that they got at the end of Green for Danger, Tour de Force, or Suddenly at His Residence.  A massive impact; a jaw dropper.  You won’t quite find that here, but damn, this is a good one,  The strength of Brand’s catalogue unfairly puts this against stiff competition.  Compare this to most other authors and you’re dealing with an absolute belter.

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21 thoughts on “Cat and Mouse – Christianna Brand (1950)”

  1. …it’s Brand’s followup to Death of Jezebel, and was followed itself by Fog of Doubt and Tour De Force…this is the author right around top form

    There are those of us who baulk at the idea of FoD and TdF representing Peak Brand…

    I’ll admit that you’ve made me curious about this given its less-than-great reputation (I passed up on a very decently priced hardcover a few months ago because I’ve generally understood this to be poor — and I’d just read FoD and was feeling indisposed towards her!). I reckon I’ll try and polish off the more traditional titles — High Heels, Heads You Lose, etc — before getting this this one, but get to it I shall. Eventually.

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    1. Honestly, I think it’s all great stuff. Picking a best Brand (at least from her “traditional” stories) seems like choosing a best Carr from 1935-1939. Sure, everyone’s going to have an opinion, but you’d end up debating between excellent titles.

      I’ll be curious to see what you make of this one. I suspect you’ll have a strong opinion either way…

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  2. It was Julian Symons’s favorite novel of hers. When reading it some years ago his enthusiasm left me a little puzzled, not because the book was bad (it wasn’t) but because it’s basically romantic suspense of the kind he usually despised. There was a soft heart beating under that goatee!

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    1. The book used to be available for Kindle – that’s how I read it – but sadly no longer seems to be and as Kate says paper copies are very pricey. I’ll have to include it in my “Nice Book If You Can Get It” series! 😉

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  3. I can’t remember at all whether I’ve read this or not!! The names “Katinka” and “Amista” sound so familiar- either because they’re common enough names (!) or perhaps I read a back cover blurb once. This is the only major Brand title that I do not own . . . yet!

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  4. I hardly remember this one, so it’s due for a reread but I do recall that it was a decent novel with a few good twists and a nice resolution. The Rose in Darkness is much better than this imo, featuring many more of Brand’s trademark features and a genuinely saddening ending.

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    1. Brad had also commented that The Rose in Darkness has a powerful ending. The two of you are getting me excited for that one. I also have A Ring of Roses, which I know nothing about, other than it features Inspector Chucky from Cat and Mouse.

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  5. Given the scarcity of this title, I should thank my local library for stocking a copy. It was quite enjoyable, and I didn’t mind it at all, but it certainly isn’t in the same class as ‘Jezebel’ and ‘Tour’, or even ‘Fog’. It felt like Charlotte Brontë decided to write a Golden Age mystery – or, less anachronistically, Agatha Christie decided to re-write ‘Jane Eyre’.

    Concerning Brand’s mystery canon, I don’t think ‘Tour’, or even ‘Residence’, are in the same class as ‘Jezebel’; I wouldn’t classify ‘Fog’ to be in the same class as ‘Tour’ and ‘Residence. Where I differ from JJ, I suspect, is that I put ‘Green’ and ‘Jezebel’ in the same class. In fact, ‘Green’ was the novel that inspired hope in me that the Golden Age genre was worth exploring beyond Christie.

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    1. It would be tough to rank Brand’s novels. I haven’t read Death of Jezebel yet, but I think I would go with Green for Danger, Fog of Doubt, Suddenly at His Residence, and Tour de Force…. but I could easily list those in a different order on a different day. Shoot, maybe Suddenly at His Residence really is the second best…

      Cat and Mouse really is a great read, but I’d put it behind all of those others. It may have had a better pace through the mid-section then Tour de Force, which slightly started to drag a bit for me at one point.

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  6. A terrific book. What’s fascinating is that, even though it’s not a traditional whodunit, it has basically the same EFFECT as the best GAD stories. Instead of “Who is the murderer?”, the question is “What the hell is going on?” And, just as in the Cockrill novels, Brand pulls the rug out from under you every time you think you know what the answer is.

    Frankly, I have no idea why this book gets overlooked so often. I guess a good comparison for Carr would be something like POISON IN JEST or FATAL DESCENT–both of them are terrific books, but they don’t feature the usual detectives and don’t have a really spectacular hook that makes them stand out, which might make people less likely to notice them. (I think all three of these books are hugely underrated, but I’d say CAT AND MOUSE is better than FATAL DESCENT and at least as good as POISON IN JEST.)

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    1. It really is a strange book, isn’t it? On paper it doesn’t sound like anything I’d be interested in, but as you say, it delivers that same effect as a top tier GAD whodunnit.

      The Poison in Jest analogy is actually interesting, in that it unfolds in a remote house with an odd cast of characters and you don’t really know who the detective is going to be…or if there even will be one. It’s still a tough judgement for me to say which is better. Poison in Jest delivered more of the intriguing crime that I look for, but I think Cat and Mouse wins out in terms of revelations and misdirection.

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  7. This sounds absolutely delightful. Thinking that Brand wrote the Nanny McFee booksd as well, which are timeless it makes you realise how a good a writer she was and how she could use mystery, suspense and emotion in many different book forms.

    Could you ellaborate on the ‘Had I But Known’ genre a bit? I have heard it used many times over the years but never quite understood what it means!

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    1. Actually it doesn’t mean anything, as it is a derogatory term invented and used by people that didn’t like that kind of books. No author that I know of has ever used it to describe their own work.
      The standard definition is a kind of mysteries in which the main protagonist is a young, pretty and not very bright girl who stumbles on something nefarious, finds herself in jeopardy through her own fault and is ultimately saved from certain death by a handsome male. The “HIBK” thing stems from the usual “Had I known this, I wouldn’t have done that” that typically opens such books. Mary Roberts Rinehart is often seen as the progenitor of that school (which is debatable) and Mignon G. Eberhart as her most talented disciple. While the genre was long derided by (mostly but not only male) critics, modern scholars have taken a more nuanced view, and HIBK is now seen as an early form of domestic suspense. I admit to love me some now and then.

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