Death of Jezebel by Christianna Brand (1948)


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jezebelDeath of Jezebel (1948) by Christianna Brand
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‘Death of Jezebel’ clearly belongs on every list of best locked room mysteries, yet it remains a rather unusual mystery read. The atmosphere of this novel is quite surrealistic and somewhat detached. Brand’s style of writing links short flashes from all the principal characters into a rather fragmented virtual dreamscape that only gradually unveils the chain of events that have led to the murder of Jezebel. The reader is not really allowed into the mind of the two detectives, or the six principle characters. Instead, we are only provided with short glimpses of the important scenes, then left to tie all these varied perspectives into a single coherent narrative. Purely as a matter of personal taste, I am not entirely enamoured with this approach, as it tends to create rather flat characters, but this is clearly a minority opinion among reviewers. Most reviews have found Brand’s characters to be very well developed and sympathetic. I fully agree with the second half of this statement, but find the first half difficult to accept, as we are given very little insight into each character’s history or their essential nature. However, as a means of creating a good mystery read, this disconnected narrative clearly has some real advantages. Each of these unique scenes are very much like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that slowly fall into place and finally emerge as a unified image. In fact, Brand makes good use of this jigsaw puzzle analogy as she describes Cockrill’s deductive process throughout ‘Death of Jezebel’. Still, the reader must be careful to ensure that all these pieces are an exact fit. Brand is clearly the undisputed ‘Queen of the Multiple Endings’, and just as you are about to celebrate your deductive prowess – you will more than likely have the rug jerked out from under your feet!

Christianna Brand was born in Malaya in 1907 and spent much of her childhood in India. Her first novel, ‘Death in High Heels’ (1941), was written during the years Brand paid her bills by working as a salesgirl – all the while fantasizing about murdering annoying co-workers and clients. ‘Heads You Lose’, published the same year, first introduced Inspector Cockrill of the Kent County Police, who was to become her primary detective during the early years of her writing career. Cockrill, like most Brand characters, has a rather elusive nature, but is generally portrayed as a rather insecure country detective who feels out of his league in urban London, even though it is the brash, young, far more sophisticated, Inspector Charlesworth of Scotland Yard, who usually ends up chasing the wrong trail, while Cockrill quietly plods his way through the evidence to reach the one obvious conclusion. ‘Green for Danger’, a Cockrill whodunnit set in a WWII hospital, is perhaps Brand’s most acclaimed work, and was turned into a film in 1946, but, for locked room enthusiasts, it is ‘Death of Jezebel’ and ‘Suddenly at His Residence’ (US title: The Crooked Wreath), that are the primary focus of interest. Both these titles have consistently been included on all the lists of best locked room stories, since the basic list was first created by Edward Hoch and others in the 1980’s. In addition, as the Locked Room sub-genre has tended to be rather male dominated, despite several attempts by some of the great ‘Queens of Crime’, Brand is as close as we can get to a ‘Locked Room Mystery Queen’, though I prefer to refer to her as ‘The Queen of Misdirection’, which is clearly her greatest literary talent as a mystery author. Though  Brand wrote only 11 detective novels, four of these qualify as impossible crime mysteries, along with at least two of her short stories. The extremely engaging Cockrill series was unfortunately dropped by Brand in 1955, which is the most likely explanation for her excellent mysteries have been largely forgotten. Brand continued to produce other works in various genres, and under several pen names, until her death in 1988, but none equalled her early success. ‘Death of Jezebel’ was out of print for many years, but has recently gained a whole new audience with the release of a new Kindle edition.

A critical part of this novel takes place in a stunningly stark two page introduction, set seven years earlier, which describes the tragic death of Johnny Wise – a young man pushed past his emotional limits, who ends up driving his car into a brick wall. It actually forms a quite remarkable mental image that haunts every page of this novel with echoes of deceit, wasted youth, and doomed love.

The plot then restarts, after a few introductory glimpses of the primary characters, when a sensational murder takes place in full view of the audience, as a medieval pageant plays out on the stage. Eleven knights hidden behind shiny tin suits of armour and mounted on horseback, ride on stage and take up their places below a tower from which the actress Isabel Drew – otherwise known as Jezebel – almost immediately plummets to her death. It is first taken to be a bizarre accident, until Inspector Cockrill, who was sitting in the audience, discovers that Jezebel had apparently been strangled to death just prior to the fall. Cockrill, attending a conference in London, had already been dragged into this affair by a lovely young acquaintance from Kent, Perpetua Kirk, who had been badly scared by a series of threatening notes on tiny pieces of twisted paper – which only seven people could have created and delivered – thereby creating a closed circle of suspects. The victim, Isabel Drew, was not destined to be sorely missed. She had been the dark begetter of pain in the death of Johnny Wise – and the light tone of this book makes this lack of sorrow eminently clear. She had long been an arrogant, vain, and dangerous woman, with an added penchant for blackmail. This had gained her the nickname Jezebel, and her death clearly echoes the biblical fate of her namesake, who painted her face and tied her head – before three eunuchs tossed her out of a tower to be devoured by the dogs.

Yet, even the evil triumvirate who caused the death of Johnny Wise, consisting of Isabel, Earl Anderson, and Perpetua, are not cast entirely without sympathy. They are clearly fallen creatures destined to be brought down by retribution for their own cruel actions, but, like all fallen creatures, from Cain onwards, the price they are forced to pay often seems far too high for a weak moment of malicious self indulgence. In one sense, these three have already paid in full: the bitchy Isabel has lost her soul to bitterness; Earl Anderson is a wandering wraith, a misty shadow of his former self; and Perpetua herself has apparently lost the ability to truly love. This clearly raises the question of whether any potential retribution sought by the other four central characters (Susan Betchley, Edgar Port, George Exmouth, or Brian Bryan) would be truly just – especially given the unintentional nature of their actions. I would suggest that it is this moral tension that provides the real reason why so many find Brand’s characters highly sympathetic, then erroneously accept this as evidence of ‘highly developed’ personas, when we actually know so little about their lives or values. These characters are essentially lightly sketched shells, made warmer by their all too human failures.

Unfortunately, the completely inadequate illustration of the crime scene, provided in the ebook, does not give us a very good mental picture of these murderous events. The locked room problem is instead described by Brand: “A ‘sealed room.’ A single entrance, bolted on the one side, bolted and guarded on the other. Two short lengths of rope: a silly little verse: a diamond brooch. A man missing who could not be the murderer since he had been sitting on his horse when the murder was done: and a frightened girl locked up, but unharmed, in a room. And finally, eleven men in impenetrable disguise in full view of thousands of people: and a woman ten feet above their heads, strangled by two hands and thrown down out of the cardboard tower.” To put it quite simply: If all the possible suspects were on stage, and there was no place to hide in the assembly room, and the only one left in the wings had been cast into a dark storage room by an unknown assailant, then the facts, as stated, are clearly contradictory! After Isabel’s death, only six possible suspects are left in this closed scene, and two of these are initially missing – one quite permanently – which makes five. Having all the men dressed in identical armour, distinguished only be different coloured capes, is the key device used by Brand to make this locked room illusion complete – leaving the final answer to entirely depend on the colour of a man’s eyes! Unfortunately, it seems that this critical device was initially misinterpreted in the French edition, which may have kept this locked room mystery from one of the very top spots on those lists compiled by French and English critics! (1) Still, no matter where it ranks, it remains a truly brilliant plot! True, some confusion may arise if the reader does not pay close attention, but this cannot be laid at Brand’s feet. A better diagram would certainly solve this problems, though I am not sure if this was ever available in earlier editions.

(1: See The Locked Room Library by John Pugmire http://mysteryfile.com/Locked_Rooms/Library )

A secondary dynamic soon develops in the competition between the two police inspectors. Inspector Cockrill (Cockie) is the outside detective who actually witnessed the murder, while Inspector Charlesworth is the official Scotland Yard detective who later arrives on scene to take charge of the case. Charlesworth almost immediately begins to under-rate the methodical country Inspector, and just like Jezebel, later pays a steep price for his arrogance, as Cockrill stays several steps ahead of his investigation. Charlesworth keeps jabbing Cockrill about how he “made such a muck of that hospital case down in Kent” (Green for Danger), but his own efforts soon prove less than stellar. Both detectives agree that this as an impossible crime, which only makes the rivalry more intense, though the banter remains good natured and the tone remarkably light for a rather gruesome murder investigation. The only character in this novel with any real depth, is ‘Cockie’, an older officer, burdened with too many insecurities, and scrabbling to keep up with a world that worships youth and beauty – all of which makes the reader cheer ever harder for the looming downfall of the arrogant Charlesworth.

When a second murder is finally uncovered – a corpse briefly missing it’s head – the story starts to become more parody than serious crime. The two fictional inspectors ironically dismiss fictional crime as lacking all the boring, but necessary, police procedures – then create a ludicrous scene where George Exmouth attempts to incorrectly prove that Miss Betchley is actually Johnny Wise’s lost twin brother, much to the displeasure of the absurdly named ‘Brian Twice’. Brand has been called ‘The Queen of Multiple Endings’, for good reason; we are finally deluged with a flood of ridiculous confessions, followed by purposeless re-creations, that could be employed to prove virtually any hypothesis – yet only serve to further muddy the waters. In the end, all four confessions are found wanting, and the fifth and final suspect, is about to be arrested, when Brand once again swerves in an entirely new direction. Even a ‘Murder on The Orient Express’ style conspiracy seems about to be discovered, before the whole re-creation charade is revealed as a ruse designed to draw out the murderer. This conclusion is a highly entertaining read, one of the genre’s best, that will leave you guessing – and changing your mind every few minutes – right up until the final pages!

How to rate this rather remarkable resurrection of a long forgotten mystery? The locked room solution clearly passes the test with full honours – it is simply one of the best solutions ever devised. In addition, the misdirection is truly masterful, it remains a first class whodunnit, and the dialogue is quite well written. My only problem lies with all those murky characters who, in my opinion, are never fully brought to life. Still, it is truly a great mystery read, despite this rather odd approach to character development. The prose style is perhaps not A+ material – but if we are to rate mysteries primarily on the genius of the plot – this novel deserves an entire galaxy of stars! I find that I badly need a half star – as overall this should be a 4.5 – but I have never done things by halves, and the locked room solution in this mystery is so incredible that I really have no choice – so let’s just declare this one of those very rare, truly great, five star classic mysteries!

 

*****

Another great literary review of this novel, badly auto translated by Google, can be found at ‘Death Can Read’ but a spoiler alert is clearly required for those who have not read the book: http://deathcanread.blogspot.com.au/2012/02/christianna-brand-death-of-jezebel-1948.html

Christianna Brand partial bibliography:

Brand’s Inspector Cockrill short stories and a previously unpublished Cockrill stage play were collected as The Spotted Cat and Other Mysteries from Inspector Cockrill’s Casebook, edited by Tony Medawar (2002).

Inspector Cockrill series
Heads You Lose (1941)
Green for Danger (1944)
Suddenly at His Residence (US title: The Crooked Wreath) (1946)
Death of Jezebel (1948)
London Particular (US title: Fog of Doubt) (1952)
Tour de Force (1955)
The Spotted Cat and Other Mysteries from Inspector Cockrill’s Casebook (2002)

Inspector Charlesworth
Death in High Heels (1941)
The Rose in Darkness (1979)

Inspector Chucky
Cat and Mouse (1950)
A Ring of Roses (1977) (writing as Mary Ann Ashe)

Novels
The Single Pilgrim (1946) (writing as Mary Roland)
Welcome to Danger (1949)
The Three Cornered Halo (1957)
Starrbelow (1958) (writing as China Thompson)
Dear Mr. MacDonald (1959)
Heaven Knows Who (1960)
Court of Foxes (1969)
Alas, for Her That Met Me! (1976) (writing as Mary Ann Ashe)
The Honey Harlot (1978)
The Brides of Aberdar (1982)
Collections
What Dread Hand? (1968)
Brand X (1974)
Buffet for Unwelcome Guests (1983)


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