A Ring of Roses – Christianna Brand (1977)

RingOfRosesA Ring of Roses is one of those late career Brand mystery novels that seemingly goes unmentioned in favor of her more well known Inspector Cockrill series (the last of which, Tour de Force, was published in 1955).  I’ve always been curious about these later books – are they just not that good?  Are they not really mysteries?  Or are they simply a bit hard to find?

Well, I can vouch that they are a bit hard to find.  Both A Ring of Roses (1977) and The Rose in Darkness (1979) took some footwork to track down.  Unlike Brand’s earlier work, there aren’t that many editions of either book and they were released late enough in her career that I’m willing to bet they were smaller runs.  A Ring of Roses was originally released as a paperback (a copy of which I’ve never seen available) under the name of Mary Anne Ashe.  You may recall that Brand published one other book under this name – the historical romance/mystery Alas, for Her That Met Me.  A Ring of Roses was almost immediately republished as a hardback bearing Brand’s name.

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The Rose in Darkness – Christianna Brand (1979)

RoseInDarkness“The rose in darkness: with the last darkness, closing, closing in.”

Wow.  Just wow.  If I were to claim that The Rose in Darkness has Christianna Brand’s best ending, I’d probably be wrong.  Hell, I’d probably find myself combatting an alternate version of myself.  Between the “I’m going to lie in bed for two weeks crying” conclusion of Green for Danger, the shocking final sentence reveal amidst the blitzkrieg that is Suddenly at His Residence, the slow sickening realization of Fog of Doubt, the jaw on the floor finale of Tour de Force, or even the rat-tat-tat neck-twisting ending of Cat and Mouse, Christianna Brand has paved a trail of stomach punch endings.  In that respect alone, she may be amongst the best of the golden age.

Still, excuse the enthusiasm of my still shell shocked mind as I rave with fan boy enthusiasm that The Rose in Darkness features one of Brand’s most powerful endings.  Of course, I’m not going to tell you any actual details about the ending, other than it was like watching a slow cascade of dominos without actually grasping how the remaining ones would fall.  Oh, and it’s one of those emotional ones that will stick with you – but again, most of Brand’s do.

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Cat and Mouse – Christianna Brand (1950)

CatAndMouseCat and Mouse is a bit of an off the radar Christianna Brand novel from what I’ve seen.  Most reviews focus entirely on the well know Inspector Cockrill series – Heads You Lose, Green for Danger, Suddenly at His Residence, Death of Jezebel, Fog of Doubt, and Tour de Force – with the occasional review of Death in High Heels (one of Brand’s first novels).  That’s odd to me, since 1. Everything I’ve read by Christianna Brand so far is an absolute classic  2. Brand wrote more than an equal number of non-Cockrill mystery novels.

So what’s the deal?  Why do people only talk about the Cockrill novels?  Are the rest garbage or have they simply been less obtainable?  I’ve started to explore that question already with my review of Alas, For Her That Met Me! (published under the name of Mary Ann Ashe).  While I wouldn’t categorize that novel as a traditional mystery, it had enough of the elements that I think fans of at least John Dickson Carr’s historical mysteries would appreciate.

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Suddenly at His Residence – Christianna Brand (1947)

SuddenlyAtHisResidenceI’ll always tout Christianna Brand as an author who can deliver an emotional blow.  Green for Danger, Fog of Doubt – even less known books like Alas for Her Who Met Me – all have a way to draw you in to the lives of a cast of characters.  Perhaps it’s her informal turn of the phrase, but the characters feel real in a familiar sense, rather than sketches on the page from 70 year ago.  The denouement comes as a punch to the gut, as real lives crumble, and a person you’ve empathized with is unmasked as the killer.

While that ability to trigger real emotion is the trait of Brand that stands out most clearly to me, she may well be among the most skilled in the field for pulling the wool over the reader’s eyes.  Her particular talent seems to be dangling a clue repeatedly in the readers face, to the point where the final solution to the puzzle comes as a natural, yet shocking realization.  John Dickson Carr certainly had this talent too, but Brand in particular excels in inflicting a sense of “damn, how didn’t I see that coming the entire time?

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Alas For Her That Met Me! – Christianna Brand as Mary Ann Ashe (1976)

AlasForHerFear not – I haven’t abandoned my focus on GAD mysteries and impossible crime in exchange for 1970’s romance novels (well, not that I’m admitting…).  Alas For Her That Met Me! is a late career novel by my personal Queen of Crime, Christianna Brand.  Yes, the cover and the title may have you scratching your head, but I assure you there’s a reason behind this madness.

I’ve absolutely loved the Brand books that I’ve read so far.  The author has a wit to her writing, a strange ability to forge a bond between the reader and her characters, and one of the most skilled hands at misdirection that I’ve yet to encounter.  Unfortunately, she only wrote 10 murder mysteries – or so I’ve been told.  I’ve found it difficult to really piece Brand’s career together, with the best reference I’ve been able to find being Wikipedia (never a good sign…).  There’s the Inspector Cockrill series, for which she’s known, and then a handful of lesser known mystery novels featuring Inspector Chucky and Inspector Charlesworth – of those, only Death in High Heels really garners any attention.  Brand seems to have ended her core mystery writing career in the mid-1950’s, with Tour de Force being her last “classic” title.

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Tour de Force – Christianna Brand (1955)

TourDeForceWhen it comes to mysteries, they call her The Queen of Hearts.  Er…, “they” being Brad at Ah Sweet Mystery.  But he’s right.  If ever an author could build a cast of suspects in such a way that the final reveal of the true culprit could be so heart-wrenching, it’s Christianna Brand.  She’s crafty too, laying key clues out in plain sight, but framing them in such a way that the reader is incapable of understanding what they’re seeing.

The trouble with Brand is that she only wrote 10 or so mystery novels (we’ll discuss the exact number later).  Of those, the most acclaimed are the big four – Green for Danger, Suddenly at His Residence (also released as The Crooked Wreath), Death of Jezebel, and Tour de Force – although I’d argue that Fog of Doubt deserves to be just as well regarded.  I’ve been excited to read Tour de Force for a while, as it’s considered by many to be one of Brand’s trickiest mysteries, and, well, the title kind of implies it’s going to be a masterpiece…

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Fog of Doubt – Christianna Brand (1952)

London Particular

FogOfDoubtAs much as I’ll mourn my circumstances when I finish my final John Dickson Carr novel, I think I’ll be grieving my conclusion of Christianna Brand just as much.  There’s just so much to like about her as an author.  The wit, the strange rambling prose, the puzzles, the characters.  My first brush with her, Green for Danger, showed me a depth to a GAD story that I hadn’t seen before.  Yes, the impossible crime was luscious – a man murdered on an operating table in full view of a surgical team – but it was Brand’s deft handling of the characters that really made the difference.  By the end of the story, the author had created such a bond between the cast and the reader that any solution was bound to be devastating.  And it was.

Of course, Green with Danger is probably Brand’s most famous book.  How would a lesser known title fair?  I picked up Fog of Doubt (also released as London Particular) based on a comment that it featured a similarly wrenching ending.  It definitely delivered on that.

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