A few evenings ago, I was in the middle of reading Heads You Lose by Christianna Brand, with the radio on (I know… the radio… how old-fashioned.) Anyway, my local classical/jazz station was broadcasting a recent performance by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, which was strange because I live nowhere near Milwaukee. It was an eclectic program, and interestingly enough they began with Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, a later composition of his written for 23 strings, each with its own unique part. I’m sure I’ve heard Metamorphosen before, but I couldn’t really remember anything about it. But, dear reader, when the select strings of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra began to play, I had no choice but to bookmark my page and give my attention to this broadcast for the next 26 or so minutes. The piece was enchanting – with 23 different parts, there is a high level of contrapuntal complexity, yet the entire piece still has a high level of emotion; it’s a despairing and unforgiving tone poem. Once the performance was finished… well, honestly, I had to take a few minutes to soak it all in and come back to reality, but after that I was struck by how Metamorphosen is a pretty good musical counterpart to Christianna Brand’s writing style: Intricately crafted and detailed, yet emotionally charged with a small but memorable set of characters / motifs. Unfortunately, although Heads You Lose contains some level of these characteristic Brandian features, it ultimately flounders as a mystery and pales in comparison to the other five Inspector Cockrill novels, each a masterpiece in its own right.
I wouldn’t blame you for going into Heads You Lose thinking that it’s going to be yet another Christie-esque country-house cozy mystery. The first chapter surely feels like that, with the rather unlikable Grace Morland making a fool of herself in front of the small group of family and friends gathered for a winter holiday as World War II rages on. Specifically, Miss Morland decides that in order to show her anger that squire Stephen Pendock has chosen to like young Francesca Hart instead of her, she claims that Fran’s new hat is silly-looking and that “I wouldn’t be found dead in a ditch with that hat on.” Big surprise what happens next…
Except, it suddenly gets brutal. Grace Morland is found the next morning, killed violently, with Fran’s hat cocked at a rakish angle on her severed head. Yikes! That took a turn for the gory. Christianna Brand is not playing games here anymore, and we’re only 20 pages in. There’s an outside chance that the same unknown lunatic who killed a kitchen maid in a similar fashion a year before is behind this new dastardly murder, but this is a Brand, and we all know that it’s going to be one of the nine other characters listed on the first page.
I find it strange that this is the first Cockrill. Besides a slightly more detailed description of his appearance than in the other novels, and a short backstory about how his wife died in childbirth, Cockrill just jumps into the mystery and acts the way he acts in every other novel without much pomp and circumstance. He’s definitely one of my favorite detectives, but it’s interesting to see that he more or less was always the grumpy, grimy police detective he still is by the time of Tour de Force.
The rest of the characters are… okay. For the most part they never really resonate as much as the characters in Brand’s other books, but nonetheless they are somewhat memorable. You’ve got a couple additional members of the Hart family, Squire “Pen” as he is lovingly called, a couple servants, Grace’s actress cousin Pippi le May, and James Nicholl, a nihilistic soldier apparently ripped straight out of Hemingway who’s just kind of… there. For the most part these characters are all unique, even if some of them lean into certain mystery character stereotypes, i.e. Lady Hart as the strict matriarch, Nicholl as the mysterious outsider, and Pippi as the annoying woman who is definitely withholding important information from the police. There’s also some really awkward anti-Semitism pointed towards Henry Gold, Fran’s sister Venetia’s husband, and I say awkward because it feels as if Brand is trying to make Gold a sympathetic character who has more to offer than being a Jewish character, and while the other characters seem to acknowledge that he is an actual human, they still tack these stereotypes onto him. It leaves a really bad taste in the literary mouth and I’m glad that Brand didn’t try anything hamfisted like that again, so far as I can remember.
One of the novel’s stronger aspects is the setting. My Mysterious Press edition doesn’t have a map, and I don’t think Brand ever drew a map for this specific novel, but it doesn’t matter because I had no trouble imagining Pendock’s house and its surroundings in the village of Pigeonsford. The snow-covered landscape easily came alive in my mind thanks to Brand’s skills in description. I could see the layout of the scenes of the two murders (for there is a second murder, and it is just as gory as poor Grace Morland’s.)
The plotline feels kind of standard, especially for Brand. After the first murder, there is some initial investigation. When the second murder occurs, there is further investigation and an inquest. Some personal feelings are allayed and some amateur solutions are propounded, before a smattering of false solutions and then the true one. However, Brand was able to keep the story interesting throughout, as she puts some good humor and suspense into the different scenes.
It sounds like I more or less liked this book so far, so why did I say in the beginning that it doesn’t compare to Brand’s other Cockrill novels? Most of it comes down to the solution. It takes a real stinker of a solution to bring down an otherwise decent book. And the solution Brand gives at the end of Heads You Lose is a REAL stinker. The footprint impossibility found in the second murder has the most disappointing answer I have ever come across. The murderer’s identity was in my opinion really obvious – I figured it out before the first murder was revealed thanks to a really weird narrative technique on Brand’s part. And the motive… like, wow, I didn’t realize that authors were still stooping so low for motives in the 40s. This is Christianna Brand, who either let us have the motive outright like in Death of Jezebel, or hid a brilliant one like in Green for Danger. I think the motive plays into the sense of emotion Brand wanted to imbue the ending with (and imbue with emotion she does,) but that motive has my eyes rolling so far back that I saw my brain attempting to figure out why Brand didn’t find a better one. At the very least, there are a couple good clues that prove the murderer’s guilt, and that only they could have been the murderer, something which I always appreciate.
So in the end, a trainwreck of a solution – plus some weirdly casual anti-Semitism and a bit of standard plotting – deflated what could have otherwise been a strong outing from Brand. To be completely fair, this was her second novel, ever. And she hit it out of the park with her third, and her fourth and fifth and so on… I don’t like to compare different forms of art, but needless to say, Metamorphosen was a much more enjoyable experience than this novel. And as a whole, Strauss is not the composer who I’d say is the most like Brand.
The rest of the Brands I have to read are her “lesser” works, so to say: Death in High Heels, Cat and Mouse, The Rose in Darkness, and the impossible to find A Ring of Roses. Plus, the newly uncovered novella Shadowed Sunlight and nearly all of her short stories. I have good hopes that there are at least a couple shiny needles in that haystack. I’ve heard good things about the two Inspector Charlesworth novels, at least.
In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel
7 responses to ““Heads You Lose” by Christianna Brand”
Yes, that solution really does reek, doesn’t it? Thankfully she would, only a handful of years later, write perhaps the most perfect country house murder ever put on paper with Suddenly at His Residence, which fixes every flaw this has and then some.
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Suddenly at His Residence is definitely eons above Heads You Lose in just about every aspect. Obviously it doesn’t hurt that Suddenly’s footprint impossibility has an ACTUAL solution, and a clever one at that!
I remember adoring plenty of elements. The moment in the hallway with the telephone (leading to the second murder) is straight out of Christie. But yes, the solution is a disaster. This is my least favorite Brand. Cat and Mouse is fantastic and I loved The Rose in Darkness. You’ve got plenty of highlights left.
On a side note — you may want to play with the background color. Reading the black text with the blue background is murder on the eyes. On mine at least.
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Whoops, I don’t think my reply was actually a reply to you! Thanks, WordPress app. I got rid of that comment, but in the name of transparency I’ll let everyone know that it contained a promise to look into changing the layout of the site.
Anyway, I made it nicer-looking, I hope! That actually wasn’t as difficult as I thought it was. I just didn’t realize where the things I needed to make everything look nice were. I was actually planning to get around to doing that this week, so thanks for the, uh, virtual nudge, I guess?
I remember your review as one of the ones that highlighted The Rose in Darkness as an underrated and strong Brand. I’d like to read Death in High Heels first, but I’m definitely eager to read TRiD and see if it really lives up to the hype. I might hold out until I can find a physical copy, though…
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A solid read destroyed by the motive. I still love one of the key revelations. I haven’t read Death in High Heels yet, but all of the other “lesser” Brand novels that you listed are quite good.
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It really sucks, because there are so many aspects of Heads You Lose that could have redeemed it. The solution (the motive especially) really sinks it down to the bottom of Brand’s oeuvre.
I’m hoping that the autobiographical aspects of Death in High Heels (i.e. the coworker hatred) make it a strong read. And I’m now looking more forward to Shadowed Sunlight, Cat and Mouse, The Rose in Darkness, and even The Three-Cornered Halo. If I ever find A Ring of Roses, I’ll look forward to that one too!
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