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.
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.