“The rose in darkness: with the last darkness, closing, closing in.”
Wow. Just wow. If I were to claim that The Rose in Darkness has Christianna Brand’s best ending, I’d probably be wrong. Hell, I’d probably find myself combatting an alternate version of myself. Between the “I’m going to lie in bed for two weeks crying” conclusion of Green for Danger, the shocking final sentence reveal amidst the blitzkrieg that is Suddenly at His Residence, the slow sickening realization of Fog of Doubt, the jaw on the floor finale of Tour de Force, or even the rat-tat-tat neck-twisting ending of Cat and Mouse, Christianna Brand has paved a trail of stomach punch endings. In that respect alone, she may be amongst the best of the golden age.
Still, excuse the enthusiasm of my still shell shocked mind as I rave with fan boy enthusiasm that The Rose in Darkness features one of Brand’s most powerful endings. Of course, I’m not going to tell you any actual details about the ending, other than it was like watching a slow cascade of dominos without actually grasping how the remaining ones would fall. Oh, and it’s one of those emotional ones that will stick with you – but again, most of Brand’s do.
Published in 1979, The Rose in Darkness was Christianna Brand’s second to last book. Only The Brides of Aberdar (1982) remained, and from what I can tell that might be more of a melodrama than mystery. Now, you could be forgiven for thinking that at this late stage in her career, Brand would be slipping into the requisite dotage that other long lived golden age authors have fallen into. Quite on the contrary – close your eyes and The Rose in Darkness could have come out immediately after a novel that many consider to be one of Brand’s triumphs – 1955’s Tour de Force.
The Rose in Darkness starts out like so many Brand books that came before: a list of character names and that famous declaration – “Among these nine people were found a victim and a murderer.” With that gauntlet thrown down, Brand wraps us in the lives of a tight knit group of friends. The center piece of it all is Sari Morne, a true character for the ages. Following a flash of success in the film The Spanish Steps, Sari has been discarded by the film industry. She still attracts attention wherever she goes, in part due to her unconventional flair for fashion and her devil-may-care attitude.
The story opens with Sari immediately getting herself into a jam. A torrential rainstorm brings down a large tree across a small country road, blocking her way home. She ends up swapping cars for the night with a man similarly stuck on the other side of the tree. The next morning, Sari heads out to return the car and makes a gruesome discovery – the dead body of an old friend is crammed into the back seat. Did she swap cars with a murderer?
It’s a complex question to answer. You see, the mysterious man and Sari actually had identical cars. And, much to Sari’s surprise, when the body is found, it is actually in Sari’s car. So how did the car get back to Sari’s apartment? How did the body get into the car?
There’s a somewhat obvious set of permutations for a viable answer to those questions, but Brand will spend the a good chunk of the book crossing them off the list. At the same time, she breathes life into a whole new set of possibilities. It’s mind boggling how such a simple problem becomes so complex over time.
One of the complications in the case is that none of Sari’s friends (a group of hangers-on nicknamed “The Eight Best Friends”) believe her story of swapping cars with the man at the downed tree. The actress is a bit prone to exaggeration, and she’s also plagued by the fear of being followed. While shooting The Spanish Steps, Sari became involved in a romance with the prince of the island nation of San Juan el Pirata (a fictional setting used by Brand in Tour de Force and The Three Cornered Halo). When the relationship ended, Sari never gave back an heirloom ring, and fears that spies from the island are conspiring to steal it back from her.
The skepticism of Sari’s account of the car swap fuels a never ending stream of theories from The Eight Best Friends. Was there ever a car swap? Was there really even a man? The puzzle presented by Brand becomes somewhat like a fractal – you have this simple shape, but the more you zoom in on it the more and more complex it becomes. Theories are being thrown out all over the place. In fact, this isn’t really much of a detective story. Inspector Charlesworth (of Death in High Heels and cameos in Death of Jezebel and Fog of Doubt) does play a role in The Rose in Darkness, but as somewhat of a background character. Instead, the story focuses on the escapades of The Eight Best Friends and their changing dynamics as the puzzle unravels.
As an author, Brand has maintained the knack for all of the talents that draw me to her books – the sharpness of wit, the vividness of character, that deft ability to weave clues into the story unnoticed, and the skill at flipping the reader’s expectations. Indeed, midway through the book I was certain that a series of revelations were absolutely inevitable, only for them to never even come to play. It’s a skill I’ve noticed in several of her other works – the ability to brush off a false solution without ever explicitly pointing it out to the reader.
The ending, when it comes, is a pure marvel. But, of course, I already beat you over the head with that in the beginning. 1979 Christianna Brand had lost none of the touch of her more renowned era, and The Rose in Darkness jostles right in alongside its more famous peers. Why this book doesn’t receive more attention is beyond me.
Well, I might understand – it is somewhat difficult to get your hands on a physical copy of the book – it took me nearly three years. Fortunately the majority of Brand’s catalog was made available electronically a few years ago. Regardless of the format, get this on your To Be Read list.