Death of Jezebel (Christianna Brand)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Quite simply the best detective story I read in 2004.  While the tone at the beginning is rather irritatingly arch, once the murder is committed, a genuine puzzle is offered to the reader.  The alert reader will work out the ingenious method at the same time as Inspector Cockrill—but is he correct?  The devilishly clever multiple solutions offered certainly shake his confidence.  Brand his inherited Christie’s gift of forcing the reader to hesitate between three suspects—he comes so far, eliminating half the suspects, and is then lost amongst the beguiling possibilities, fixing on such maddening clues as cloaks and ropes.  The solution is utterly brilliant, nearly as fine as Chesterton at his best (c.f. “The Secret Garden”“The Dagger with Wings”, and “The Worst Crime in the World”).  Over-ingenious, perhaps, but wonderfully clever tricks are played with body parts as the Grand Chain becomes a danse macabre, providing the murderer with an alibi worthy of Agatha Christie.  What a piece of work is Brand’s!

Blurb (UK)

‘Christianna Brand is among the very first few of our British detective writers,’ said Elizabeth Bowen.  Adept at the ‘drawing-room’ detective story, Christianna Brand here turns to a scene of near fantasy – a cardboard and tinsel tower, a flimsy balcony above a brightly-lit stage … three of the suspects on one side of a locked door, the other three cavorting about on horseback dressed up in phoney armour…  But there is nothing unreal about the body of Isabel Drew, who, in full view of a thousand people, is strangled and thrown down to her death.

The delightful and irascible Inspector Cockrill (of Heads You Lose, Green for Danger and Suddenly at his Residence) is on the spot, ‘bumbling about,’ as The New Yorker puts it, ‘in his captivating way,’ none too pleased to find the Terror of Kent forced into competition with a bright young spark from Scotland Yard.  The jig-saw puzzle begins to sort itself out … and in due course the last piece clicks perfectly into position.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (30th April 1949): A very neat version of the “sealed room” mystery, with a known number of suspects and clearly defined limits of time and space.  In the middle of a highly patriotic pageant, staged at the culminating attraction of the Homes for Heroes Exhibition, and at the moment timed for her dramatic appearance on the rickety balcony of a very pseudo-medieval tower, Isabel Drew, the unlikeable leading lady, is strangled and flung to the stage in full view of her attendant knights and a large audience beyond the footlights.  Readers of Miss Brand’s earlier detective novels will not need to be told that this setting provides her with excellent opportunities to indulge her sense of character and her pleasantly malicious wit, as well as her gift for posing an ingenious problem.

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 7th May 1949): The plots of both [G.V. Galwey’s] The Lift and the Drop and Death of Jezebel are utility stuff suitable for the home market.  With a cargo of puppets strapped on the carrier, their framework has just enough solidity to carry the dubious reader wobbling to his destination…

Jezebel is strangled at a pageant in front of a large audience, with thirteen knights in armour on horseback watching the proceedings.  Spectacular!  Some of Miss Brand’s characters show a flicker of life, but that is the most that can be said.  When the mechanics of her murder are ultimately divulged, even Carter Dickson’s hair might stand on end.