A Ring of Roses is one of those late career Brand mystery novels that seemingly goes unmentioned in favor of her more well known Inspector Cockrill series (the last of which, Tour de Force, was published in 1955). I’ve always been curious about these later books – are they just not that good? Are they not really mysteries? Or are they simply a bit hard to find?
Well, I can vouch that they are a bit hard to find. Both A Ring of Roses (1977) and The Rose in Darkness (1979) took some footwork to track down. Unlike Brand’s earlier work, there aren’t that many editions of either book and they were released late enough in her career that I’m willing to bet they were smaller runs. A Ring of Roses was originally released as a paperback (a copy of which I’ve never seen available) under the name of Mary Anne Ashe. You may recall that Brand published one other book under this name – the historical romance/mystery Alas, for Her That Met Me. A Ring of Roses was almost immediately republished as a hardback bearing Brand’s name.
So, the scarcity may explain the lack of attention that both books get (ebook editions seem to have been available recently). I can assure you that it isn’t the lack of quality. The Rose in Darkness provides every element of character, wit, and misdirection that Brand is famous for, and as I’ve just discovered, A Ring of Roses delivers the goods as well.
It’s odd that A Ring of Roses was originally published under the name of Mary Anne Ashe, as it is pretty much a continuation of Brand’s 1950 novel Cat and Mouse. Well, it’s not a continuation of the actual story, but it does take place in the same area of Wales and features several characters from the original (one of which was rather surprising). I won’t mention any character names, since Cat and Mouse is twisty enough that everyone is a suspect, and so I’m going to avoid inadvertent spoilers.
A Ring of Roses follows the story of Estrella Devigne, an actress whose career has been propelled by personal tragedy. While pregnant 15 years earlier, Devigne was beat by her (pre-fame) Chicago mobster husband. The result was a crippled child who somehow captured the hearts of tabloid readers around the world. The mobster was thrown in jail for an unrelated crime, and now, finally being released, is dead set on reconciling with his daughter.
This leads him to an isolated village in Wales where the daughter has been raised by friends of the family in an effort to keep her out of sight of the prying media. Something goes wrong – we’ll spend much of the book figuring out what exactly – and the mobster and his bodyguard both end up dead.
A local inspector arrives on the scene of the crime and quickly realizes that things aren’t adding up. It’s here that I’m going to have to take leave of describing the plot, as like its sister novel Cat and Mouse, A Ring of Roses is very much a story that unfolds as a series of unforeseen surprises.
Or, are they foreseen? Brand has this little trick of dropping a clue that you think only you have seen, allowing you to interpret it in the logical way that a learned mystery reader would be inclined, and then crushing your theory chapters later. Every single conclusion that you’ll jump to has been anticipated – in fact, you’ll read this story in a state of constantly thinking you have things figured out – and of course for a mystery lover there is no better experience than realizing you are wrong.
It’s a short book – my hardcover edition runs just 157 pages – and yet a third of it is devoted to the denouement. And what a baffling rodeo it is. Twist for twist, Brand teases the full solution and then reveals it to be a mirage. At one point I recall realizing that I still had twenty pages left and I just couldn’t imagine what else could happen.
If you’ve read Cat and Mouse, you may realize that ninety percent of what I’ve just said could be equally applied to that novel. They’re near spitting images, and whatever your opinion of one will likely hold for the other. A Ring of Roses is more of a novel of detection though – much of the story plays out through the theories of the lead investigator – whereas Cat and Mouse is more of a gothic melodrama.
This is a novel that shows you just how complicated an open and shut case can be. How fragile a theory is when you lack conclusive evidence. How the human mind, when driven by primal desperation, has the incredible capacity to deceive. The chess game played both in and out of full view by the investigator and his quarry are the real gem of this book.
I may surprise you at this point by saying that A Ring of Roses probably falls towards the bottom of Brand’s library, but that’s simply because she published a mere dozen mysteries and all of astounding quality. It would be like if John Dickson Carr only wrote ten novels and I said “The Emperor’s Snuff Box is his worst”. In a year in which I’ve read fine contributions by the likes of Clayton Rawson, Ellery Queen, Anthony Boucher, Helen McCloy, Agatha Christie, John Russel Fearn, Patrick Quentin, and John Dickson Carr, this may well be my second favorite novel. The first? The Rose in Darkness.