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, and 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.
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 ~