I really loved the first of Brand’s mysteries that I read, Green for Danger (find my review here), and this second one was just as delightful!
Book: Death of Jezebel by Christianna Brand
Publication date: 10th August 2022 (originally published 1949)
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by British Library Publishing. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: violence, injury, death and murder, suicide.
At Elysian Hall, a grand exhibition space in post-War London, a cast has been assembled for a medieval-themed pageant show replete with knights in coloured armour, real horses and a damsel in a rickety tower on high. With death threats discovered by members of the troupe before the show, the worst comes to pass when the leading lady is thrown from the tower before the eyes of the audience by an unknown assailant – with all doors backstage also under observation. Faced with a seemingly impossible case, the wizened Inspector Cockrill and the fresh-faced Inspector Charlesworth begrudgingly join forces to uncover the killer hiding in plain sight. First published in Britain in 1949, Brand’s exuberant novel is still regarded as one of the great masterpieces of the classic mystery genre for its fiendishly constructed puzzle, memorable setting, dumbfounding acts of misdirection and thrilling denouement.
Ooh, I had fun with this one. The set up is phenomenal – a murder on stage in the middle of a pageant in the middle of a fair! Even though it’s in full sight of an audience, there’s a locked room element as the body of the victim falls from a tower that only a few people could possibly have had access to… which is so confusing there’s actually a diagram of the stage so you can keep the cast’s positions straight in your head!
One thing I think Christianna Brand really excels at, here as well as in Green for Danger, is creating characters that are instantly recognisable as types, with an array of soapy, intricate relations between them. So much hinges on how people feel about the leading lady, the Jezebel in question – do they fancy her, or are they jealous, or do they hate her? Well, all of the above, and it leads to such fun interactions among the group of suspects. It’s full of delightful forties banter and surprisingly dark moments hidden among seemingly superficial chit-chat. It’s all just very entertaining even as the mystery bubbles away underneath.
Also fun is the fact that this book brings together two of Brand’s different series detectives in one book, so you get a classic Morse-esque clash of policing styles as Cockrill and Charlesworth bicker over the investigation. I’ve not read any of the Charlesworth books before, but given how easily his personality came across, I think this would be a fine introduction to either or both (though there are many, many references to Cockrill’s somewhat unorthodox behaviour in Green for Danger). The mystery itself isn’t quite as satisfying a reveal as I’d hoped, but it’s still a really enjoyable, twisty, witty read.
If you’re looking for a fun and soapy vintage mystery to spend a Sunday afternoon with, this is definitely one you need to check out! Four out of five cats.
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