Agatha Christie. Margery Allingham. Dorothy L. Sayers. Ngaio Marsh. These four names have been carved into the annals of crime fiction history as the “Queens of Crime” — the highest of the highest examples set in detective fiction, the grand dames of murder, the gold standard of mysteries for a century to come. These four women were the superpowers in crime writing culture in their time…
But nobody’s ever been satisfied with just four of anything, right? Four is such an awkward number. Three’s much nicer, but… well, it isn’t very nice to say that someone doesn’t deserve their decorated reputation. That isn’t to say I wouldn’t, but I want this to be a positive piece so, instead, I’d like to make a case for a fifth Queen of Crime. A brilliant writer who put to paper three accepted masterpieces and at least three more nearly-comparable efforts in about the same amount of books it took Dame Christie to grow out her training wheels, and one of the unsung heroes of the women of the Golden Age of Detection: Christianna Brand!
Christianna Brand’s literary career started in 1941, when she wrote a murder mystery featuring Inspector Charlesworth, called Death in High Heels. The novel was inspired by her fantasies of how she’d get away with killing bothersome customers and co-workers while she worked as a salesgirl and, evidently, crime writing proved to be a cathartic outlet for her unsavory tendencies as she almost immediately wrote and published Heads You Lose, the first of her longest-running series of novels featuring Inspector Cockrill. She had a steady output of detective fiction featuring primarily Inspector Cockrill for the next two decades, before slowing down but still occasionally publishing the odd crime novel or children’s book well until her death in 1988.
In 1948, she published Death of Jezebel, a locked-room mystery where Cockrill’s career is still recovering from his blunder in Green for Danger, her most famous novel, a 1944 mystery set in a military hospital during wartime bombings. Consequently, he is at odds with a local police inspector, who also just so happens to be Brand’s secondary series sleuth Inspector Charlesworth and who isn’t entirely convinced Cockrill is up to snuff to solve this mystery. Though Death of Jezebel novel is technically a crossover between the two, it’s primarily a Cockrill novel, with Charlesworth ultimately failing to solve the crime before Cockrill.
Her name is Isabel Drew. But her company prefers “Jezebel”. It’s been years since Drew compelled her best friend Perpetua Kirk to engage in drunken adultery with Earl Anderson, even though she had only just recently gotten engaged to her loving fiancé. Cruelly, when the fiancé shows up looking for Perpetua, Drew led him straight to the scene of her infidelity and, horrified, he immediately drives his car into a wall, killing himself.
Since then, his death continues to linger over the company like a nasty miasma. When Drew, Anderson and Kirk, all still together in spite of the horrible events years prior, are set to premier in a historical medieval pageant at the Homes for Heroes Exhibition, with this animosity culminating in each of the trio receiving death threats, promising their demise at the Exhibition. Not willing to sacrifice the pageant, the three bring in Inspector Cockrill to defend them, falsely hoping that the deaths, if any should there be, would occur between shows…
And yet, to the horror of thousands of spectators, in the middle of the pageant, as seven knights ride out onto stage on their horses, Isabel is thrust from the peak of the tower on which she stood, and is found to have been fatally strangled just a few minutes before her fall. On one side of the tower, a door was locked and bolted from the inside, and guarded on the outside by one of the crew… and on the other side of the tower, an open archway exists, in full view of the massive audience, all of whom swear that nobody ever went into it since all of the actors rode out on stage. A seemingly impossible case of strangulation and defenestration, committed inside of an empty tower nobody could’ve ever entered, in front of a reliable crowd of thousands of witnesses.
And so, the game is afoot, with Inspectors Cockrill and Charlesworth on the tail of a dangerous killer armored with unparalleled ingenuity.
Death of Jezebel represents the greatest example of and the logical extreme of Brand’s greatest strength as a puzzle-crafter: her mastery over the dramatic logical reversal. Brand is borderline Machiavellian in her ability to plant ideas and theories into the reader’s brain, convince them they thought of it themselves, shred it to pieces and move on. Brand is a puzzle-crafter who is able to lay down pieces with such a casual frankness that it’s always hard to tell when she’s trying to hide something from you, or if she’s trying to hide the fact she isn’t trying to hide anything at all… False solutions that play on theories the reader will assuredly have at that point in the game, clues that never mean quite what they seem they should… and in the middle of Death of Jezebel, during a long series of false confessions, possibly the single most damnably mischievous and mean-spirited “meta”-misdirection I’ve seen in this genre, period end, which I would love to talk about in a little spoiler-dedicated section at the end of this review, as it aligns somewhat with a complaint many people have with this book….
Oh, and never-you-think that all of this misdirection, cluing, red herring planting, game-playing, manipulating and mind-reading Brand’s engaging in is wasted on a solution that isn’t worth her efforts. Brand demonstrates marked ingenuity and cleverness in her locked-room puzzle, creating a solution that, while somewhat convoluted (is that really a bad thing?), flows brilliantly and organically from the information we’ve been given, and which could truly only work in this set-up. The solution is devilishly macabre and novel, and beyond daring and clever, and hits like a bolt of lightning when it’s revealed.
As a puzzle mystery, locked-room or otherwise (but especially for locked-room mysteries), Death of Jezebel has become the gold standard for me. It’s become an example I try to follow in my own impossible crime writing in cluing, misdirecting, and solving, and the example against which I measure nearly every locked-room mystery novel I read. It’s impossible to describe just how formative this novel has been in guiding my experience with reading and writing puzzle mysteries for years since I’ve read it. I’ve read mystery novels that surprised; this one took it a step further and inspired.
And hark, O Ye Socialites of the genre, for no Brand is ever just a simple, cozy, humdrum puzzle plot. As with any of her mystery novels you can select at random, the characters in Death of Jezebel are described and developed with a surprising amount of that ever-elusive third-dimension, and a persistent charm. Even the bleak, more toxic cast of Death of Jezebel sticks out to my mind years after I first read the book, and the clarity and complexity in which their flaws are drawn gives them a sort of bizarre negative charm; Perpetua Kirk is one of my favorite suspects in a mystery novel ever. And mind you, I’ve never been one much to get too caught up in the literary merits of a Golden Age mystery — puzzle first, and all that — but Brand’s skill at eliciting immediate familiarity with her core players is still worth mentioning, even for someone like me who usually doesn’t care.
The novel pips along chipperly in a marked contrast to its somewhat un-cozy, darker narrative, and manages to be reliably playful when it knows it ought to be. And yet, there’s also its own fair share of grittiness and frankness that you rarely see from this genre, in this period of time. As with her puzzles, Brand’s stylization is, put simply, daring. I also consider Death of Jezebel one of her better-paced mysteries. Many of her other novels take too long setting the stage, and the interpersonal dramas, before getting to the murders, but the more concise, elegant dynamics between the central trio in Death of Jezebel let Brand get to the mystery quickly without necessarily sacrificing the human element that she’s always handled so well.
I’m sure you can tell, given I’ve had not a single negative word to say about this novel from beginning to end, but I absolutely adore Death of Jezebel. I can say with no reservations, no doubt, and no trepidation that this is my favorite locked-room mystery ever written, my favorite puzzle plot ever conceived, my favorite piece of misdirection, and my favorite mystery novel ever written, period, and has been wildly influential to me as a reader and writer of puzzle plots and impossible crimes. It is, in my opinion, the greatest effort by one of the greatest practitioners of the Golden Age mystery, who should be better known than she is. Book-for-book, Brand would make Agatha Christie sweat if the two decided to compete. No complaints, no negativity. Death of Jezebel is a masterpiece, and anyone and everyone with half an iota of interest in anything crime fiction could do much worse than to pick it up for themselves, and then read four more Brands immediately after…
All rise for the newest Queen of Crime.
*** SPOILERS ***
One of the most frequent complaints I see levied against Death of Jezebel is the false solutions being annoying and not credible. In any other mystery novel, I’d accept that a pointless series of false confessions is annoying and detracts from the work, but in Jezebel I feel as if the greatest piece of misdirection in the novel would be lost without them.
Many locked-room mysteries make the mistake of tipping their hand by not letting the reader get to intimately investigate key pieces of information that highlight the vulnerabilities in the set-up. In pure spite of that, Brand boldly reveals the most important half of the solution in the middle of the book. Christianna Brand reveals the actual solution in the middle of a long series of fake solutions, at a point in the novel when it’d be unthinkable for the writer to reveal the real solution, and so she never has to actually prove it wrong. We’ve already subconsciously accepted that there’s no way this is going to be a real answer, presented in the middle of five other fake confessions, in the middle of the book. When the detective gives some flimsy excuse proving this solution wrong… we just sorta go “okay, that’s fair” and immediately X out that line of reasoning from our brain. The book tricks us into taking the CORRECT answer when it’s presented to us, distrusting it, and immediately throwing it out and just deciding to never think about it again for the rest of the book without any great deal of logical effort from her part. This is absolutely brilliant, even if S. S. Van Dine wouldn’t necessarily approve, and I could not imagine this book without this fantastic piece of false-solution-based misdirection.