I must be a bit of an idiot. How else could I explain walking into Heads You Lose thinking “this might be ok”? I mean, come on – I’ve absolutely loved Christianna Brand’s mysteries up to now. The set ups are great, yep. The solutions are a seemingly contradictory blend of earth shattering and simply obvious. And man, her writing… If there’s another author with this sense of wit and the ability to craft a cast of characters, let me know.
I’ve read most of Brand’s nine mainstream mysteries (she published a handful more that for some reason fly under the radar), and aside from the elusive and enamored The Death of Jezebel, I’ve only had Heads You Lose and Death in High Heels left to go. And so I’ve saved them; on one hand so I had some of Brand at her best left (which is somewhat of an errant thought – her lesser known books have been excellent), but also because I had the impression that some reviewers had lesser impressions of these early books. Yeah, I realize there’s a bit of a contradiction there.
I guess I’ll forever harbor this assumption that the first few books from an author aren’t going to be that good, when really you can imagine that it’s the first few books that actually established them in the first place. The examples I can provide that will resonate the widest are Agatha Christe’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles and John Dickson Carr’s It Walks By Night. In both cases, I figured “this won’t be that good”, and was subsequently blown away.
I’ve been on a binge of good reads lately and figured that I’d reach into my Brand trove. I had the sense that I was going to enjoy Heads You Lose, but there was still that trepidation. Then I opened the book and flipped through the initial pages. There it was – a list of characters and that trademark gauntlet thrown down: “Among these ten very ordinary people were found two victims and a murderer.”
If you haven’t read Brand before, it’s a key feature of her novels: a list of dramatis personae and that telltale phrase. Granted, any list of characters at the front of a mystery novel (which was a popular feature in Avon, Pocket Books, and Dell editions during the 40s) implies at least one victim and a murderer. With Brand, it’s a bit different though. It isn’t merely a decision on the part of a particular publisher for a particular edition; it’s part of the novel proper. And there’s a sense of claustrophobia in the way Brand does it – a mere 10 names in the case of Heads You Lose, nearly a third of which will either kill or die.
Most any review of the book that you read will focus on the aspect of the plot that intersects with book’s title: a woman declaring she wouldn’t be caught dead in a ditch wearing a particular hat, and then being found later exactly so. It’s a worthy headline for sure, but it’s more what Brand does with that premise that makes this story shine. Which characters knew that the comment about the hat had been made? Who had access to the thoroughly locked house in which the hat was kept at the time of the murder? Therein lies our closed circle of suspects.
To focus on that first murder though does Heads You Lose a disservice. In my mind, the true star is the second murder, with a decapitated corpse discovered in a pavilion surrounded by untouched snow. The closed circle of suspects is confirmed once more, with only a select group of individuals having access to a key piece of evidence found with the body. And really, that’s the main game Brand plays with the book. Through the two crimes, she establishes that one of our cast of suspects must have committed the crime, and yet that’s contradicted by the circumstances and alibis. She has a great deal of fun with that, and the number of theories and false solutions provided rivals any… well, Christianna Brand novel.
In a sense, Heads You Lose is the prototype for a later Brand novel (and one of her triumphs), Suddenly at His Residence. It’s startling similar, in particular with the fervent rush towards the end through a spiral of solutions. Suddenly at His Residence excels in that the solutions to its two crimes are outstanding, and that’s unfortunately the relative point of weakness to Heads You Lose. Don’t get me wrong, Heads You Lose packs a wallop, in particular with a startling overturning of an assumption most every reader will have made. Yet the ending lacks that sucker punch that you come to expect from Brand’s work, even though it has all the potential to. Brand threw solution after solution at me, and in that final chapter, I found myself wanting one more.
Still, it’s as good of an ending as you get from 95% of mysteries. As complex of a puzzle that Brand presents to you, it’s all amazingly simple in hindsight. Everything really hinges on Brand’s key talent – allowing the reader (and characters) to make innate assumptions without realizing they’re doing so. Once the assumptions are dissolved, the revelations manifest on their own without Brand having to take you by the hand and explain it all.
The whole thing was an amazing read, my favorite scene being one where the suspects try to recreate the impossible crime of no footprints in the snow (besting a similar scene in The Problem of the Wire Cage). A week has gone by and I still have Heads You Lose stuck in my head – and that’s typical of Brand. So, I was delightfully wrong about this one. Hopefully I’ll be just as wrong about Death in High Heels.
I snatched up my 1988 Bantam Books edition because it was cheap, not because of the cover. And yet, having read this and looked through the other covers online, I actually think this might be the best one. In particular, I like the depiction of the feather and flower hat that leads to all the trouble – a detail not properly captured on other covers.
Interestingly, the inner cover of my edition promises that “coming soon” are Bantam editions of The Rose in Darkness, A Ring of Roses, and The Death of Jezebel. I’m nearly positive these never came to be, which is unfortunate because all three books are very difficult to find, and I imagine that wouldn’t be the case if they had been back in print during the late 80s.