Tour de Force (1955) by Christianna Brand

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Christianna Brand is in my humble opinion, the best mystery writer from the Golden Age. Her work has fully captivated generations of readers, drawn in by her left characterization and gorgeous writing, alongside a tenacity for puzzle plotting that would make almost any other author blush with shame and have their output pale in comparison. She only produced about a dozen or so mystery novels, and yet each is a delight, a treasure chest from any fan of detection fiction, and a holy grail of sorts for her devotees.

 

Something about Brand has always enraptured me, her work drew me in suddenly and I found myself devouring her mystery novels at a near unstoppable pace. Green for Danger, Suddenly at his Residence, Death of Jezebel, etc would all be greedily gobbled down before the next book would follow. However, Brand’s small output proves to be her only fault. In a perfect world, she would have been as prolific as Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr – and would certainly be considered to be on their levels by nearly all. I’ve basically read all of Brand’s books; The Rose in Darkness, A Ring of Roses, and Cat and Mouse are all that remain of her mysteries for me, but before I dive into them, I decided I’d reread one or two of the books that truly made me fall in love with an artist of crime.

 

Tour de Force features a package murder – sorry, package vacation. Inspector Cockrill is taking a tour of the Mediterranean with an eccentric lot of people, including a acclaimed novelist, wealthy recluse, gay fashion designer, one armed pianist, and a shy woman who seems to have a liking for sticking her nose into the business of others. The first few chapters directly focus on this group of 7 or so, utilizing comedy and genuinely being witty in it’s descriptions of the people that take these sorts of tours. It’s satirical to an extent, poking fun at the stories that so commonly use this premise, but it’s presented in a fresh and invigorating way. However, the chapter ends with a description of the group’s next destination; San Juan de Pirata, a place where death will claim an unlucky victim.

 

San Juan is picturesque island, known for its semi autonomous status, unique culture, tour.jpgand large fleets of pirates and smugglers. I love it when fictional nation states are present in detective fiction, it allows for a unique twist to any tale and when done right can thoroughly make a story several tiers better than it would have been before. San Juan is a character in and of itself; it breathes life and brings a charming air to the proceedings, and Brand’s dialogue and character building directly links to the island itself.

 

Murder strikes when Vanda Lane – the shy and nosy woman, is found stabbed in a seemingly ceremonial manner, with a ornate knife used to dispatch her. The only people that can reasonably be expected are the other members of the tour group, but a impossibility soon arises from the choice of suspects. They were all present on the beach, under the watchful eye of Cockrill, and no one left in an obvious manner, making the crime basically inconceivable.

 

There is a genuine gracefulness to the crime, one that defines the plot as a whole and carries the narrative. Brand examines every possible opportunity, motive, mean, etc for the crime. She sets out to prove that anyone could have reasonably commited the murder, and she does exactly that, leaving no stone left unturned. Every potential strand you might latch onto is eventually cut, and if you have no other theory, it leads to you being exasperated as to what exactly is the solution. In the end, she pulls out a stunning reversal, one that leaves your head spinning while allowing for you to gape at the simplicity of it all. It’s a fantastic solution to a fantastic problem, and the thorough management of the buildup to it makes it all the more enjoyable.

 

Twisty is the best description for the web formulated by Tour de Force. So many elements are combined and examined in order for it all to work out in the end, and it does. Little side plots are connected to the main, irrelevant details and minor clues are spun until they form a whole new meaning, and our ideas about certain facets of the crime are constantly shifted in every possible way; allowing for a story that truly runs freely, chained down by nothing except the mind of its creator.

 

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As per usual, Brand writes in the most palpably enjoyable and yet complex way imaginable. Turn of phrase is a natural gift for her, and she is a wordsmith in the first degree. Whether it be comedic dialogue that charms or dark lines that showcase deep thoughts about humanity, she always delivers, in the best possible way. I have never read an author whose writing just clicks with me as much as her’s does with me. Of course, I can let one simple line speak to it:

 

“ ‘ You must have faith. He will come back to you.’ ‘Faith isn’t a thing you can switch on and off like a light,’ said Helen. ‘It requires some – co-operation on the other person’s part.’ ”

 

As for characterization, its not as effective as other works by Brand. While it maintains the same realism, some of the key characters still barely make it out of their preconceived stereotypes, Fernando being a obvious example. The one thing that almost certainly comes alive is the island itself, which thrives like an actual human being and creates a wonderful atmosphere around the whole thing. But we still get some truly impactful people, such as Louvaine Parker and Helen – multi dimensional figures who grow as the story steams along its prerequisite track.

 

As a final point, I’d like to bring up an idea expressed in a review by Vintage Pop Fictions. It being that in this book Brand attempts to challenge the growing restrictions of crime fiction during the 50’s by creating a story that is as preposterous as one can imagine. Once you look back in retrospect, that theory makes sense. This book is a tour de force because of how much it borders on self parody with every passing page. A mystery is created here with a solution and cast of characters that perfectly fit the “ridiculous” mold commonly used by Golden Age writers. It’s pure fantasy, but it’s fantasy that still retains a soul, fantasy that is a breath of fresh while being eminently satisfying. Brand was a writer who understood how to make fun of tropes and make satire out of detection fiction, and it rises to the occasion here.

 

Before I delve into some heavy spoilers surrounding the main murder, I’ll do my usual summation. Tour de Force is another classic from Brand’s output, one that truly is a fantastic swan song for Inspector Cockrill. While it may not be her best work, it still is an incredible piece of detective fiction, and is one whose twists and turns need to become more adored and recognized. A 5/5 for it!

 

                                               ~ SPOILERS BELOW THIS POINT ~

 

The solution itself relies on a conceit that you either see right through, or never suspect. I do find the fact that Vanda somehow remade herself into Louli within an hour or so to be quite unrealistic, and it could also be considered a minor cheat if you really are picky. There is wonderful clueing about the switch that you don’t notice until a reread, and going into this with knowledge of the solution made the experience better.

 

One of Brand’s false solutions is a near inverse of the real one, and that makes everything all the more breathtaking. She flaunts what is basically the solution right in front of your face with any dressing, but still manages to keep it concealed for many a reader. I’m sure that if you prodded enough it would come naturally, but Brand expects this and sets up more falsities to keep you barking up the wrong tree. Funny how things end up working, eh?

                                                               ~ SPOILERS END ~

 

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14 thoughts on “Tour de Force (1955) by Christianna Brand

  1. I have a feeling that I’m getting a reputation as someone who doesn’t like Brand on the back of me failing to be enraptured by this one and being thoroughly frustrated by the prevarication and nonsense of Fog of Doubt/London Particular. She’s a wonderful writer, and her characters are always exquisitely realised and rich, but this feels like something that’s tremendously easy to see through on account of her not bringing her full self to the construction. Given how neatly Brand could lead you by the nose into a trap, the solution here is the sort of thing she’d set you up to expect and then dismantle gleefully at the 70% mark in her pomp As such, it’s a disappointment for me, even though I know a lot of people disagree when I say so!

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    1. As I said above, the central conceit behind the mystery can either be painfully obvious or impossible to grasp. It really does depend on who the reader is and what mindset they’ve adapted when reading. I find it to be a fine solution, but maybe it’s because and I was thoroughly fooled for hundreds of pages before it was revealed.

      I’ll even admit that there was at least one false solution that may have been better than the actual one, it being one of the theories surrounding Mr. Cecil – but it’s all about preference!

      I’m what you call a Brand apologist; I’ll probably rave about anything I read by her, even if the masses think I’m crazy. London Particular is one of my favorites and I’ll probably be rereading it very soon. I’ll admit that the mystery is very easy to see through ( I had it down by the first few pages) but it’s a masterpiece of emotion and familial relations.

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      1. I think I need to stop reading Brand for her plots, and just enjoy her people. I’m finding that easier as I get older. I’ll end up a Mary Westmacott fan at this rate.

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  2. It’s ages since I read this. I recall liking it but not perhaps being as stunned – I need to reread it I guess as that often leads to a rewarding experience.
    Mind you, when I went back to Fog of Doubt last summer, I found that a whole lot less satisfying, but I think there are good reason for that, meaning it’s actually not that great a detective story.

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    1. A reread is definitely needed in order to appreciate just how developed a crime in a mystery novel can be. I think I enjoyed Tour de Force more on a reread than during my original read, so that contributes to my overall glowing tone in the review.

      Fog of Doubt isn’t really a incredibly well developed mystery story. It has an ingenious central puzzle, but its solution is quite obvious and there’s much more focus on the characters than almost any other Brand. I still adore it, but that’s personal bias speaking 🙂

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  3. “Fasten your safety belts.” Tour de Force is pure skill. I can’t even imagine how much fun it was for her to write. The only drag was the jail cell moment. It only seemed to exist so the blurb could say, “Even Cockrill is a suspect.” The killer’s “renegotiation” of the confession is something I could only dream of coming up with. Wonderful review.

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    1. Tour de Force is pure skill, and pure joy. I can agree on the jail cell scene – it really doesn’t do that much and can even annoy, but it’s so minor that it has almost no impact on my enjoyment. Everything about this is smart; Brand knows what we as a reader might think, and she uses our canny minds and expectations to send us on a round trip to befuddlement.

      Thanks for the kind words, they alway help brighten up a dreary morning!

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  4. I haven’t read this one but I’ll have to say I am not a huge fan of Brand. As JJ said, she is a great writer and superb in characterization, humor, drama, romance etc. but I have often found her puzzles very weak. It seems to be she wasn’t very interested in puzzle-plotting.

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      1. You took the words right out of my mouth JJ!

        And Neil, Brand is an author who has more focus on character and setting a scene than overall plotting, but she still manages to create fiendish and fascinating crimes throughout her stories. An acquired taste, yes, but she has at least one or two stories that’ll click for almost anyone – Death of Jezebel being chief among them.

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      2. Well, ‘Death of Jezebel’ will be my next Brand then. I suppose I was thinking of ‘Fog of Doubt’ when I said strong characters and weak puzzle. That one was plain awful!

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  5. You and I have very similar views on Brand being on top of the genre. Tour de Force is an excellent example of that. Brand at first presents a near-impossible crime in that none of the suspects could have committed it. She then strips each alibi down to the point where you’re left with the conundrum that every suspect could have done it. It’s almost the reverse of a classic detective plot.

    You may only have a few Brand titles left, but they are good. Cat and Mouse is very different from anything else Brand did, but I was swept away by it. The Rose in Darkness left me stunned. And, of course, The Rose in Darkness is very much connected with Tour de Force by the island of San Juan de Pirata, plus a brief mention of Mr Cecil.

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    1. Brand was the queen of false solutions; every novel of her’s relies on the examination of the motivations and opportunity of everyone involved in the crime. It’s good solution after good solution, and I’m sure that almost any other author would kill for any of them.

      The Rose in Darkness will be my next foray into Brand, and given its reputation for emotional impact – well, I’m very excited 🙂

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