Christianna Brand may well be one of the best mystery writers of the Golden Age. Her output was short but powerful. Green for Danger, Suddenly at His Residence, Death of Jezebel, Fog of Doubt, Tour de Force, and Cat and Mouse; these six novels, published between 1944 and 1955 match the best of any other author. There’s Death in High Heels and Heads You Lose as well, which, while being widely read and reviewed, don’t seem to hold quite the same reputation (I quite enjoyed Heads You Lose up until the final chapter).
But then poof, that was it for Christianna Brand as a mystery writer. She then went on to write a series of well regarded children’s books and we never got anything more…
At least, that’s the impression I had a few years ago, but of course it isn’t true. Brand wrote quite a few short mystery stories throughout her career – enough to populate four well stocked (and hard to find) collections – including some absolute crackers, like Twist for Twist (more widely available as The Hornet’s Nest) and Cyanide in the Sun. She also did in fact publish some excellent mysteries late in life: The Rose in Darkness and A Ring of Roses. Why these two books fly under the radar is beyond me, although they’re not exactly easy to obtain for a good price (Death of Jezebel isn’t easy to find either, yet has become a legend of its own). Brand also produced nine additional novels that seem to get zero reviews, and I’ve always been super curious about that. So I started to dig in.
Alas for Her that Met Me and Heaven Knows Who are examinations of historical true crimes. The former is somewhat of a mystery and has a decent turn, the latter inexplicably covers an open and shut case and was a bit of a trudge to get through. So what of the rest? I decided to try out an interesting sounding title, The Radiant Dove.
Well, I’ll make no pretense: The Radiant Dove is in no way connected to the mystery genre. Yes, the story features some surprises, but of the sort that you expect from any decently formed plot. Alas, The Radiant Dove is firmly a romance novel.
Yes, I read a romance novel. And I read it for you.
If you were merely curious as to whether The Radiant Dove was some under the radar Christianna Brand novel, you can duck out now. If you’re still a bit curious, then hold on to your petticoats. We’re going in.
The story concerns Miss Jane Bird, recently hired as a governess for a rich family occupying what I took to be (it was never stated that I recall) the mid-nineteenth century. We see her brought onboard, with a firm understanding of her place in life; little better than a servant of sorts, destined to play out her years doting on a series of other people’s children. Her new employers play loose with social norms though and fully embrace her, naming her their “radiant dove”. You see, this is a waaaaay back version of She’s All That – or, for the less cultured, Pygmalion or My Fair Lady – in which the homely governess is actually drop dead gorgeous and just needs a nice ball gown to turn things around.
Jane’s a stickler for her station in life though. She refuses any act of kindness, including a surprise invitation to a ball that’s well above her social stature. In fact, you get damn near sixty pages of her insisting that she refuses to go to the ball.
“I will not accept any gifts” said Miss Bird. “I shan’t need them, I shall not go to the ball.”
Once she’s dragged kicking and screaming to the ball, she takes immense pains to inform any potential suitors that she’s a mere governess and not of any social worth. Repeat that for fifty more pages and you have the one tiresome bit of the novel. It’s an enjoyable read still, and if you injected a murder, you’d have a story that for the most part fits right in with John Dickson Carr’s historical mystery output from the 1950s. Alas, there is no murder, and so this really is just a period romance. Things tie up neatly for everyone by the end of the novel (er… spoilers?) and… I don’t quite get the point of it all.
I mean, this isn’t exactly a steamy romance. There’s maybe once scene with a kiss that isn’t on the wrist (above the glove no less – oh, the scandal!) and so I’m not sure what audience for this was. It certainly wasn’t me.
Brand was much more successful with Alas for Her that Met Me, which was published two years later. While it isn’t a flat out mystery, a murder plays a central role in the novel, and there’s a bit of a shock when you realize who committed it. If you’re curious about Christianna Brand’s outer fringes, that’s the one to read. The Radiant Dove, on the other hand, isn’t going to deliver anything you’re looking for. It’s adroitly written, as you’d expect from Brand, but this isn’t the type of story that I imagine you’re looking for.
Oh well, it was a fun experiment. And I’ll be back, maybe a year from now with Court of Foxes, Starrbelow, or one of the other obscure titles. I haven’t given up yet.