Death of Jezebel – Christianna Brand (1948)

I remember someone posting a comment that they’d picked up a copy of Death of Jezebel “the other day” for a mere $6, and in hindsight that was a definite hilarious troll.  But that comment fueled me for the better part of four years, lighting the fire that I would obtain this book for $10… or $20… or at least an outrageous to me $25, for which I would gladly pay.  Alas, a year after passing up a $70 copy, and with eyes glazed over and mind jaded by one too many a $395 copy, I sucked it up and put down eighty-some – approximately seven-times what I’ve ever paid for any mystery novel – and here we are.

That Death of Jezebel isn’t widely available for an affordable price is simply mind boggling.  Yes, someone should get a $17 reprint out there immediately, but why aren’t there a dozen editions readily available on the second hand market to select from spanning the fifties through at least the nineties?  Christianna Brand is one of the true masters of the Golden Age, and in a sense, she’s the one that got away – publishing less than a dozen mysteries, yet with each rivaling the best by any other author.  That her library isn’t more widely accessible is beyond reason, but what’s even more bewildering is how Death of Jezebel – acknowledged by many to be one of the best impossible crime novels of all time – is next to impossible to find for less than three figures.  You’d think that some enterprising publisher would say “hmm, you know that book that everyone desperately wants to read, but costs an arm on a leg on the second hand market?  I wonder if there’s money to be made there instead of republishing Lee Thayer’s catalog?”

Well, anyway, I finally got my hands on it, and of course there’s a big expectation going into it.  So was it worth the outrageous (to me) sum that I put down on it?  Well, here’s how I look at it.  If I know that Brand has published a story that’s at least as good as her other most heralded works – let’s say Green for Danger or Suddenly at His Residence – would I part with that much money to read it?  Apparently yes.

Death of Jezebel focuses on the seemingly impossible defenestration of a woman from a pageant tower in front of thousands of spectators.  The hands that pushed her couldn’t exist, as entrance to the tower requires bypassing said thousand spectators, or gaining access to a backstage room whose one entrance was under constant surveillance.

The fun part about a Christianna Brand impossibility is that you’ll inevitably find kinks in the armor, but Brand is always one step ahead of you, as if she somehow subtly put the theory in your head for the sole pleasure of crushing it.  Yeah, tons of authors play the red herring games, but Brand is near clairvoyant.  I latched onto a good half dozen theories, all of which seemed like brilliant misdirections that I had seen through, only for Brand to dissolve them with barely a mention.  Indeed, the very solution to the puzzle that I latched onto midway through the novel seemed like such a certainty, and while Brand did get around to addressing it, it was discarded within a page.

That’s the brilliance of Brand though: that she doesn’t need to explicitly draw things out for the reader, instead letting the imagination fill in the gaps and run rampant.  Think of the solution to the footprints impossibility in Suddenly at His Residence, where Brand reveals the trick in a few brief sentences on the final page, and then leaves it to the reader to fill in all of the profound repercussions.  Oh man, she does that in spades with Death of Jezebel, and when the horrifying solution swiftly comes, you’ll be left shell shocked trying to piece it together.

But before we even get to the answer to it all, we’re treated to a complete whirlwind of theories and alternate solutions.  This isn’t completely foreign for Brand – see Cat and Mouse, Green for Danger, Tour de Force… hell, I’m going to list her whole catalog, aren’t I?  Page for page on the number of reversals, you’d have to go up against her highly regarded short story Twist for Twist (aka The Hornets Nest).  I’ve seen some reviewers mention that they actually tired of the twists, but that’s like complaining that Paul Halter stuck too many impossible crimes in a novel: pure insanity.

I’ll admit though, this one took a bit for me to attach with the characters.  Brand more than other mystery writers of the time had this ability to create a true sense of family in her cast, almost always with devastating effect come the finale.  It wasn’t until past midway that Death of Jezebel’s cast started to click for me, and still, these are more a cast of undesirables than any other in her repertoire.  They did click eventually though, and although this is one of the few Brand novels to lack a heartbreaking ending, it more than makes up for it with a sickening shock that will stick with you for days.

So yes, worth eighty dollars, but I won’t be spending a quarter of that much on another book until inflation really kicks in.  Because really, what story remains that is worth that?  Is there some long lost John Dickson Carr novel from 1935-1939 that just got unearthed?  Maybe an unknown entry by Derek Smith or Hake Talbot?  Even then, no.  Only Christianna Brand could weave together the clever wit, the shocking reversals, and the sickening heartache that would make it close to worth it.

My edition

I ended up with a 1976 Ian Henry Publications edition, and this is a nicely built book.  Good paper stock for sure, although I’ve seen better in the hardback realm.  As I assume is the case with all editions of the book, we start out with a sort of map of the scene of the crime.  It would have been fun to see what Dell could have done with that map back in their heyday.

33 thoughts on “Death of Jezebel – Christianna Brand (1948)”

  1. Carr could have written a fantastic DoJ, but he would have been helpless writing a London Particular. Conversely, Christie would have done wonders with the familial/obsessive dynamics of LP, but the nastiness (and impossible-crime rigour) of DoJ seems as if it would have been “beneath” her. Brand is truly the best of both worlds.

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    1. The impossible crime rigor in Death of Jezebel is impressive. It’s amazing to consider how much of the book is spent trying to carve a hole in the set up, trying out various theories, and then ripping them to shreds. I think that Carr had his best moments when he applied a similar amount of focus to the puzzle – The Problem of the Green Capsule, The Judas Window, dare I say The White Priory Murders – as opposed to, say, a book like The Sleeping Sphinx where the impossibility was just a minor point in the story.

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  2. Ben – great review as usual and I am glad you liked this. This is my favorite Brand novel. Everything works well here: Brand’s characters, impossible crime, false solutions considered, resolution/culprit, etc. It just all comes together. I have this in hard cover with just jacket and it is a prized possession.

    It is an “impossible crime” in and of itself that this has not been reprinted … hopefully the decision makers at British Library Crime Classics, Dean Street, etc. will see the opportunity they have with Brand.

    Imagine if Brand’s output had been as prolific as that of Carr or Christie. Regardless, she is one of the best GAD authors and re-read potential of her books is strong.

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    1. If Brand had produced as much as Carr or Christie, I honestly think that she’d easily be the greatest detective fiction writer. Just looking at the consistency in her career and then thinking about what if that output was tripled? I don’t think there’d be a contest!

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    2. I don’t know that I could select a favorite Brand novel because there are a good eight novels that each have such profound moments left in my mind. Admittedly I think I would whittle that down to Green for Danger, Death of Jezebel, and Suddenly at His Residence, but man, it feels like a crime to leave out Cat and Mouse, Tour de Force, The Rose in Darkness, Ring of Roses, and Fog of Doubt. Well, ok, we can at least agree that Heads You Lose isn’t her best book. There.

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  3. While Suddenly at his Residence is my favorite of Brand’s work, I can’t deny that Death of Jezebel is her best. It’s such a shame that it’s never been reprinted, and that itself have always confused me. Every other Brand novel has had at least a handful of reprints, but DoJ seemingly got it’s first hardcover and paperback releases in the 40s/50s, and then never turned up in print until the Ian Henry Publications you have came into existence, and even then, that seems to be a pretty small batch of copies. I’d think of all her books, this would be the one most people would be clamoring to get their hands on if she was reprinted, and so it’s surprising to see how it’s hardly been touched. Maybe a rights issue? Regardless, it’s a classic. One of the top ten best mystery novels, and one of those few extraordinarily rare books that actually lives up to the hype.

    And I too, would be willing to pay an exorbitant sum for a long lost Brand novel, and we already know of two that exist! I can only hope that one day The Chinese Puzzle, with it’s impossible murder during a seance, can finally come into print 🙂.

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    1. The $70 edition that I foolishly passed up was actually from 1990, which I believe may be the last time this was physically published. There have been a number of audio and ebook versions, but I’m curious if there is some issue with the physical rights.

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  4. I’m delighted you enjoyed this so much — it almost lived up to my expectations, but then I paid less than you for my copy and so the very, very slight disappointment didn’t sting at all. Obelists Fly High? Now there’s a book I paid good money for and reaaaaally wish I hadn’t bothered.

    I actually don’t recall many of the details about this beyond the final solution and the fun Brand has poking the actors’ community for gentle laughs. Maybe I should reread it, but then I’m saying that about more and more books these days.

    And I of course agree that the absence of a set of Brand reprints — or even a single book — is mind-boggling given the current GAD boom we’re enjoying.

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    1. I can’t imagine one would ever feel that pleased with the outcome of paying more than $20 for a mystery, because really, it would 1. have to deliver big time, 2. have to be so unobtainable that you’re willing to part with that much. Therein lies the seeming contradiction of a book so good that it isn’t readily available. And really, how many of those can there be out there?

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      1. And really, how many of those can there be out there?

        Good point; I mean, off the top of my head I can only think of the joy that would greet reprints of:

        Death of Jezebel (+ most others) by Brand
        Hardly a Man is Now Alive by Herbert Brean
        The Tube by Pierre Boileau
        The Problem of the Green Capsule (+14 others) by John Dickson Carr
        Found Floating (+ everything after) by Freeman Wills Crofts
        They Can’t Hang Me by James Ronald
        Withered Murder by A & P Shaffer
        Black Aura by John Sladek
        Invisible Green by John Sladek
        The Death of Laurence Vining by Alan Thomas
        Heir Presumptive (+ others) by Henry Wade
        etc, etc.

        Some of these are purely personal, of course, but some of these I’ve read and would still pay $20 for 🙂 Plus let’s not forget all the translations of honkaku we’re still hoping for from LRI and Pushkin, plus LRI’s ability to ferret out great work by Noel Vindry, Alexis Gensoul, etc.

        So, yeah, virtually nothing 😉

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        1. Ok, you kind of answered a different question than I meant to ask, although I did a poor job in the framing. Yes, those are all books deserving of reprints, and yes if it turned out that they were extremely scarce, there are some of those that I would pay $20 for (knowing what I know having read them). Yet I’m sure I could grab The Problem of the Green Capsule for $5 and Hardly a Man is Now Alive or the Sladek books for $8-12 because these titles are readily available (and thank goodness for that).

          Take books like Withered Murder of The Death of Laurence Vining though – these are indeed impossible to find, but for all we know, they may end up being the next Shade of Time (not having read it, but based on recent comments).

          So how many books are there that are near guarantees like Death of Jezebel? I’d love to take a gamble on some of the obscure/expensive Virgil Markham books, but in most cases I haven’t even seen a whiff of a review and I’d be gambling based on one strong read.

          I suppose the “expensive” books that might be worth it are the hard to obtain short story collections like Buffet for Unwelcome Guests, Merrivale, March and Murder, or Fell and Foul Play (I’ve actually managed to obtain two of those for $12 or so, but I recognize that as pure luck).

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          1. I suppose my position is more that I’d happily pay $20 to know if a book is no god than to always hope to pay less and therefore never find out. $20USD isn’t, after all, much more than the LRI, Ramble House, and Coachwhip paperbacks cost, so it doesn’t seem like such an unearthly sum.

            And, of course, it’s so painfully subjective that any ‘guarantee’ of quality is laughable. Someone out there thinks The Death of Jezebel stinks, and would probably sell you their copy for $5 just to get it off their shelves. Difficulty is finding them 🙂

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      2. I like the list that JJ created. Others I would add that I wish were reprinted:

        Murder Makes Murder – Harriette Ashbrook
        Ring of Roses – Mary Anne Ashe (aka Christianna Brand)
        The Case of the Seven of Cavalry – Anthonty Boucher
        Mind Your Murder – Yolanda Foldes
        These Names Make Clues – ECR Lorac
        Peril at Cranbury Hall, The House on Tollard Ridge – John Rhodes
        Six Were to Die (aka The Dark Angel) – James Ronald
        The Man Who Was Not There – Edna Lina White

        What other extraordinarily rare books do others recommend?

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        1. Ring of Roses is an excellent example, as it truly is difficult to find and there’s a semi-guarantee of quality given it was written by Brand. Granted, it isn’t Brand’s best, but man, I loved it. Would people have buyers remorse at $20? The answer to that is probably the same as whether they’d have buyers remorse for Cat and Mouse at the same price.

          I’ve been trying to track down The Case of the Seven Cavalry for a while now, and it’s proven difficult to obtain at a good price. It’s the only Boucher that I have left to buy, and I hadn’t really paid as much attention to the price/availability of Calvary while I was still hunting down the rest of his catalogue. I’m curious if years earlier I passed up a good price without noticing.

          The rest of the titles that you listed aren’t even on my radar, although I’ve seen the James Ronald title in passing. Have you actually read any of these? If so, I’d love some recommendations. If not, I’m curious how these made your list of desirables.

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          1. When I discovered all you GAD bloggers, I slowly made my way chronologically through the golden age reviews from you, JJ, Kate, Puzzle Doctor, John, Curtis, Nick, Brad, TomCat, Laurie, DeadYesterday, etc. looking for the best of the best titles you had reviewed.

            I then began hunting for them, acquired many, enjoyed most I have read so far and have a TBR mountain that resembles an avalanche 🙂 … but many are still elusive including the subset I listed (i.e., impossible to find or too expensive on abebooks, ebay, etc.)

            For example, JJ recommended the James Ronald title, Puzzle Doctor and I think John the Rhodes’ titles, Kate the White title and Foldes’ title (Mind Your Own Murder not Mind Your Murder), Ring of Roses came from your recommendation, etc. “The Muniment Room” on TomCat’s blog is also a good index of titles to explore and I really like when you all blog “best of” lists from a particular author or theme as that gives me new leads to track down.

            Thanks to all of you as I have found a GAD world beyond Agatha Christie that I never knew existed.

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            1. I suppose I haven’t made things easy in that I don’t provide star ratings for anything I read. It would be difficult though, due to what I think of as “the Carr scale”. For example, I think of The Lost Gallows to be a two star book for John Dickson Carr, but it’s a 3.5 compared to the wider scope of authors that I read. Likewise, all of Brands mysteries would inevitably be five star, with the exception of Heads You Lose, which would be demoted to four stars. Yet, if I ranked Brand relative to herself, Heads You Lose drops down to a three star, and a book like Ring of Roses falls down to a four.

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              1. Ashbrook’s Murder Makes Murder and Boucher’s The Case of the Seven of Cavalry were both reprinted in 2019 as ebooks, respectively from Black Heath and MysteriousPress/Open Road, which might do until you can get your hands on physical copies. Always glad to hear people rummaging around in the Muniment Room.

                By the way, a very specific title I want to see reprinted, preferably by Locked Room International, is Maisie Birmingham’s The Mountain by Night, because it would be a perfect companion to Derek Smith’s Come to Paddington Fair. Brian Skupin highlighted the book as a noteworthy impossible crime novel from the 1990s, but it was independently published in 1997 (same year as Come to Paddington Fair) in, what I assume must have been, a very limited print-run. So you can’t find any secondhand copies for sale online. I think it would be fitting, if LRI brought another obscure collector’s item from 1997 back into print. Well, that and my crippling impossible crime addiction cultivated a taste for the truly obscure.

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  5. I enjoyed your review, as always. Yes, Brand, like Carr and Christie, definitely knew how GAD fans would think and used it to mislead us. [SPOILER ALERT—I won’t reveal the solution, but I might give away a red herring] When I was three-quarters through Green for Danger and had no idea whodunit or why, I turned back to page one, and noticed a five-word descriptive phrase. Eureka! I know who the murderer was, and the motive. Brand had put the clue on the first page to catch me off guard. Then, at the end, my solution came up… and one page later turned out to be a false solution. One reason I like Berkeley is because in at least three books he fooled me with a false solution that was so good, I figured it HAD to be the real one. But Brand is the champion at this.

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    1. This is why Fog of Doubt is the one real disappointment to me; I figured that the obvious “trick” I found so early would be a false one . . . and then it wasn’t. And then Brand wrote an introduction to the reprint and bragged about her trickery here.

      I own this and read it 100 years ago. I definitely need to re-read and really study Brand’s oeuvre. She deserves that as much as Christie, for all that she does so well. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for The Chinese Puzzle . . . . .

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      1. It’s a shame that you spotted the trick to Fog of Doubt, because let me tell you, when the reality eventually sets in towards the end of the book – and it truly sets in, Brand doesn’t call it out so much as allow the reader to connect the dots – it’s one of the most memorable finales that I’ve read.

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    2. Ha, you totally made me go back and read the intro to Green for Danger! And man, there are so many examples of Brand planting an idea in your head from Death of Jezebel that I want to point out, but… spoilers.

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  6. Augh, here I was thinking you’d managed to pick this up for under $50 or something… but no, you’re just being a bad role model for us all! I’ll have to give in eventually…
    That said, I have spent similar prices on GAD before – those hardback collections of Carr short stories. I probably overpaid for those, I don’t have the patience to wait for good prices. But at least I know I’ve got all the short stories now… and I can’t resist those alliterative titles.
    It seems Death of Jezebel may be available on audio book, but I don’t get on with those.
    Jealousy at your having read it aside, I’m glad it lived up to expectations for you.

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    1. Ha, yes, I’m sorry to disappoint. I could have held out for a few more years, but there’s always that nagging question of “what if I get hit by a bus and I haven’t read Death of Jezebel?” Of course, now I’ll inevitably stumble upon it for a steal…

      As for the Carr books, I assume you’re talking about Fell and Foul Play and Merrivale, March and Murder. I managed to snag Fell and Foul Play for a shockingly good price, but still haven’t seen Merrivale, March and Murder for less than $80. I don’t recall the specifics (perhaps you can help), but I believe there are 3-4 stories across those two collections that aren’t available elsewhere. Of course, that leads to the insanity of paying $80 for 1-2 short stories! But yeah, I’ll probably find myself doing that eventually…

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  7. If Brand had been more prolific and maintained her usual quality and ingenuity, she would have been considered the true Queen of Crime. As someone already pointed out, she represented the best of two worlds (Carr and Christie). Honestly, I think a non-prolific Brand is a bigger loss to the genre than the lost manuscripts by Commings and Talbot. Anyway, glad to read you made a worthwhile investment.

    As far as my person reprint wishlist is concerned, I can simply sum it up as everything obscure and hard-to-get listed in Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders and Brian Skupin’s Locked Room Murders: Supplement.

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    1. Brand gets one last laugh on me though. She seemingly stopped publishing Golden Age style mysteries following Tour de Force in 1955… and yet we know that isn’t the case due to Ring of Roses and The Rose in Darkness. There are all of these various books that don’t get discussed in mystery circles – The Three Cornered Halo, Starrbelow, Court of Foxes, The Honey Harlot, etc, etc – that seem as if they may have some element of mystery in them. I mean, The Honey Harlot is a take on the Mary Celeste impossibility, and The Three Cornered Halo is somewhat of a continuation of Tour de Force (featuring Cockrill’s sister, I believe). And so what if buried within one of these books is some devious twist? I can’t help but find out.

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  8. For you who master the swedish language, I would recommend “Døden regisserar”. And while we are in Sweden, why not go for “Detta grymma mord”? But there you have to hurry. I suspect the second in line will have to go home empty-handed.
    And of course; there is always “La Mort de Jezabel”!

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  9. I think you grow tired of the false solutions at first, but when you get to the denouement and find out that they had such a brilliant reason for existing it’s honestly hard to stay mad at them. It’s easy to imagine that Brand had, excuse me, the biggest shit-eating grin on her face when she thought of the trick she played with the false solutions it’s so devious. Absolutely a delight and my personal favorite locked room mystery novel ever.

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