Cat 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.