Ok, well, I finally did it. I hit a wall with my Christianna Brand reading. It was inevitable I suppose, although I liked to think it wouldn’t happen. You see, with only three of Brand’s widely recognized mysteries left, I’ve been all to happy to dabble with the more obscure titles. Why deplete my remaining stock with a book like Death in High Heels when I could explore something lesser known such as Court of Foxes or The Brides of Aberdar? It hasn’t been a fruitless quest – it bore treasures such as The Rose in Darkness and A Ring of Roses – and for that I’m happy I took the less traveled road.
Heaven Knows Who is deservedly a lesser known Brand. It wasn’t always so obscure, winning an Edgar Award in 1960 for “best fact crime” (or “true crime” as we would know it today). The book seems to have since faded from the collective memory, and I can’t say that’s for no good reason.
First let’s get our bearings. We’re just five years removed from what’s most widely held in our collective consciousness as Brand’s run of mystery novels. You know the likes – Green for Danger, Suddenly at His Residence, Fog of Doubt, and what I suppose would be her final “known” title, Tour de Force (1955). Since that time, Brand has released just one novel under her own name, 1957’s The Three Cornered Halo (Starrbelow was released in 1958, but under the alias China Thompson). It seems fair to say that at this point, Christianna Brand is a name firmly connected with the mystery genre, and she won’t get to her most widely known work – a collection of Nurse Matilda children’s books – for another four years.
At this point in her career, Christianna Brand pulls somewhat of a John Dickson Carr, and swerves suddenly towards historical fiction… although not quite yet. Heaven Knows Who is historical, but it isn’t fiction. Instead, it’s a detailed examination of the true life murder trial of Jessie M’Lachlan.
Why Brand chose this particular murder case to dwell upon is beyond me. This fixation on historical crimes seems to have been all the rage at some point, and there are examples of the likes of John Rhode (The Case of Constance Kent), John Dickson Carr (The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey), and Julian Symons (Sweet Adelaide) trying their hand. Picking apart a dusty case and lending a fresh examination to the evidence seems like a reasonable mid-career luxury for the established mystery writer, somewhat akin to Linda Ronstadt taking a swing at opera and a Broadway musical during the 80s.
The case of Jessie M’Lachlan seems like an odd choice though. It’s an absolute open and shut case. We don’t need Brand to shed a new light on anything, other than perhaps calling attention to an unfortunate miscarriage of justice. Perhaps it’s a matter of expectations. If an author like Brand writes about a true crime case, I’m inclined to have the expectation that she’ll present it as a mystery or throw some curve ball. That’s not the case here.
Brand has gathered an enormous amount of information on the case – court records, interview statements, press clippings – and assembled it into somewhat of a story. This isn’t really a fictionalized account of the crime, but rather Brand arranging the real evidence such that it can be told in story form. It’s very much the voice of Christianna Brand – coy attitude and all – relating the facts of what happened, and peppering the proceedings with wry observations.
Heaven Knows Who starts with a telling of the events leading up to the murder of Jess M’Pherson. Brand frames it by providing a look into the poverty stricken life of her friend Jessie M’Lachlan and following the unfortunate woman on the day leading up to some as yet unclear event for which she will be tried for Jess’s murder. It’s a lengthy section of the book, and although we don’t yet know the details of what will happen, I suspect any reader will have a good enough idea of who is going to commit the murder.
Next, we skip forward in time to the events following the murder. We still don’t know the details of the actual crime, but we follow Jessie as she seemingly disposes of evidence throughout Glasgow. At this point, any reader will be absolutely certain what has happened, who is guilty, and how it ties into Jessie’s actions.
By the third portion of the novel, Jessie has been arrested for the murder of her friend, and we finally get an account of the details of the actual crime. In hearing the evidence, the reader will be baffled by how anyone could consider the murder to be anything other than an open and shut case.
We’re most of the way through the book by the time that we get to Jessie’s trial. It had been a competent read up to this point – filled with historical nuances you’d never have imagined, although devoid of any semblance of mystery – but now the fatigue sets in. You remember all of that stuff that we just read: the events leading up to the crime, what happened after the crime, the case against the accused and her interviews with the police? Now we get to hear it all over again, this time in the form of court testimony.
Brand closes the novel with a final section where she rigorously dissects the evidence and proves beyond any doubt exactly what must have occurred. But… we didn’t need that. We had just read 250 pages from which I can’t imagine any modern human wouldn’t feel there is an air tight case against the guilty party. And yet Brand is happy to bring us another 30 pages just to make sure.
Please note that I didn’t say that I disliked Heaven Knows Who. It’s rather well written for what it is – a readable analysis of a true crime that occurred long in the past. And if I read that sort of stuff, I imagine this would be rather good. However, I’m interested in reading mysteries. I’m looking for my read to vex me with a burning question, and then to close with the impact of a satisfying revelation. Heaven Knows Who doesn’t do that, nor do I think is it intended to.
To those reading this, I imagine this book doesn’t hold much for you beyond being part of Christianna Brand’s all too small library. Only if you dabble on the side in genres such as historical true crime is this really going to be your thing.
So this is for posterity. If you go in with the right expectations, perhaps you’ll like this I had different expectations set, having read other Brand historical works with Alas, For Her that Met Me! and the short story Cloud Nine (collected in Verdict of 13). In each of those, Brand had built a touch of mystery into the historical elements. But, to be fair, those were stories into which an element of mystery could be injected. If anything, the Sandyford Murder Case – on which the crime in Heaven Knows Who is focused – is interesting because of the light it sheds on a bygone court system. A system in which the prosecuted isn’t legally able to provide testimony in court, and conversely, anyone providing evidence can’t be prosecuted. Brand captures that well, in particular with the final parting lines.
I’m under the impression that there are three editions of this book – the 1960 edition by Michael Joseph LTD (UK), another 1960 edition by Charles Scribner’s Sons (US), and a 2016 release by Mysterious Press. All copies I’ve seen tend to go for a bit of money, but I was lucky enough to pick up the 1960 UK edition for cheap – although I had to sacrifice the dust jacket. It’s a fine hardback with excellent paper and print. In fact, this is the first book that I’ve seen that goes so far as to list out the font/size, who made the paper, and where it was set, bound, and printed. That, folks, is how you release a book.
My edition contains two character sketches, a street map, and two isometric renderings of the crime scene. At the very back of the book there’s a fold out map of the house in which the crime occurred, which I unfortunately didn’t realize was there until I finished the read. All in all, it’s a nicely made product.