Authors: Christianna Brand
Buffet for Unwelcome Guests
Open Road Integrated Media
HE ORGANIZERS CALLED IT
“A Night of Mystery.” It was an evening in late September, 1976, on the campus of the University of California, San Diego. The editorial board of The Mystery Library, a mystery fiction reprint project sponsored by the University’s Extension Division, had been meeting on campus for the preceding two days. Board members and guests—writers, editors, and critics of mystery fiction—were now scheduled to present a public program of short talks. Christianna Brand had been one of the guests at the board meeting, and was conscripted for participation in the evening’s entertainment. Preliminary doubts (“What can I find to talk about that would interest an audience?”) were overcome, and proved in the event to have been groundless—as anyone who had sat through the previous two days’ discussions could have predicted. Within two minutes of her arrival at the podium, it was clear that Christianna Brand knew exactly what she was doing, and the audience had joyfully succumbed to her warmth and wit.
Writing about a much later meeting, at the Third International Congress of Crime Writers in Stockholm, 1981, author Barbara
Michaels described Christianna Brand as “a lady whose public persona is a delicious blend of Agatha Christie and Barbara Cartland.”
The Christie component can be accepted without argument, but there might be a dispute about including Miss Cartland. And surely just a touch of Gracie Fields ought to be mentioned…
In any case, the scene at the “Night of Mystery” was repeated a few days later at the seventh annual Anthony Boucher Memorial Mystery Convention in Culver City, California. And at the eighth “Bouchercon” in New York a year later, and at the second Mystery Library Writers Conference in the summer of 1978, and on other occasions as well. The topics and anecdotes varied, though some of them had to be reprised by popular demand. (The story of Dorothy L. Sayers and the blood in the stairwell has become a word-of-mouth classic.) But the audience reaction was always the same. Listeners were delighted by the sharp verbal portraits; they listened intently whenever a serious note was introduced; they anticipated exactly as much of a story’s trend as they were intended to do, and responded with appreciative chagrin when the punch line turned out to be other than what they had been induced to expect. In fact, they reacted much as readers of Christianna Brand’s fiction have been doing for some forty years.
Mary Christianna Milne was born on 17 December 1907 in Malaya. She spent a motherless childhood there and in India, supervised by a succession of nannies. Finally she was sent to England to attend a Franciscan convent school in Taunton, Somerset. She adored the school. It was a considerable shock to find, at age seventeen, that her father had lost all his money, and that she was to be turned out to earn her own living. “Vague, bewildered, totally untrained,” as the standard book-jacket biography puts it, she worked without notable success at a long series of jobs: nursery governess, packer of beaded dresses for export, hostess in a plush nightclub, professional ballroom dancer, model in Bond Street dress shops, and (“most hopeless of all”) secretary. She recalls that during these years she was “always broke and often hungry.” Later she ran a club for working girls in a slum section of London, demonstrated gadgets at trade fairs, and made unsuccessful forays into market gardening and house decorating. Finally she ended up in a shop selling Aga cookers.
It was time for a change in her fortunes, and three things combined to bring one about. The first, despite the lack of any literary or journalistic background, was an impulse to try writing fiction. The result was a very brief crime story called “The Rose,” which was bought by
and published in its October 1939 issue under the byline ‘Mary Brand.’ Already present in this first effort were features that would be characteristic of the author’s fiction through the years: crisp prose, an ironic view of human relationships, and the trick ending which turns a story on its head.
A second influence at this time was the dread and dislike which Mary Milne felt towards a co-worker. Perhaps in an attempt to exorcise this feeling, she decided to write a murder mystery and model one of the characters after the co-worker, who could then be made to suffer a terrible fate by proxy. Accounts differ as to whether the character was to be victim or murderer. At any rate, the novel was begun, scribbled in an exercise book in the shop, in intervals between cooker sales. Before it was finished, a third decisive event occurred. Mary Milne had met and fallen in love with a young surgeon, Roland S. Lewis, and they were married in 1939.
The novel was eventually finished, and began making its rounds. It was turned down by fifteen publishers before being accepted by one of the most prestigious publishing houses in London, The Bodley Head.
Death in High Heels
was duly published in 1941 under the byline ‘Christianna Brand,’ which became the author’s standard pseudonym for her crime fiction. By this time a second mystery novel was well under way, and
Heads You Lose
was also published by The Bodley Head. Although the first Christianna Brand novel would not see a U.S. edition for fourteen years, the second one was not only snapped up for U.S. publication but won a $1,000 prize in Dodd, Mead’s “Red Badge” mystery contest. This novel introduced the author’s series character, Inspector Cockrill of the Kent County Police. Small, elderly, bird-like “Cockie” possesses a keen eye for detail, shrewdness in judging character, a sometimes well-concealed sympathy for human frailty, and a fierce passion for the truth. In a character sketch written for Otto Penzler’s anthology,
The Great Detectives
, the author reveals that Cockrill was modeled upon her father-in-law, for fifty years a medical practitioner in a small Welsh mining town. “And what does a doctor bring to the study of his patients, but those very qualities that we claim for the chief inspector? Observation, understanding, the ability to cleave through the irrelevant to the right and only diagnosis; a keen appreciation of cause and effect, an ever-increasing experience; integrity, wisdom.” Cockrill would eventually appear in five additional novels and (to date) an equal number of short stories.
Before the next book was written, Roland Lewis had gone off to military service overseas, and much of Mary Lewis’s time was taken up by war-related work. Written during the German bombardment, under just such conditions as are described in the book,
Green for Danger
is widely regarded as the best Christianna Brand novel. Even to those who propose other candidates, it is an acknowledged classic. A murder is committed in the operating theatre of a military hospital for bombing victims. One of the seven people present must be the murderer, but the murder method and the identity of the guilty party defy Cockrill’s efforts at detection until almost too late. Anthony Boucher selected the book for inclusion in a series of reprints called The World’s Great Novels of Detection, and in his introduction labeled the book a “beautifully deceptive formal detective story,” while noting that the passage of twenty years had rendered it also an excellent period novel.
Green for Danger
was made into an expertly crafted film in 1947, with Alastair Sim in the role of Inspector Cockrill.
In 1946 Mary Lewis made her first departure from the world of mystery fiction. At the urging of the Minister of Health, with whom she was acquainted, she wrote
The Single Pilgrim
, which was published under the byline “Mary Roland.” This novel, quite daring for its time, explored the growing danger of syphilis in postwar Britain.
After the war the careers of both Roland and Mary Lewis stabilized, and finances became more secure. They acquired a Regency house in London’s Maida Vale, with a mulberry tree in the garden. The family had been increased by the adoption of a daughter, named Victoria (Tora) after the heroine of
Death in High Heels
Two more Cockrill mysteries appeared,
The Crooked Wreath
in 1946 and
Death of Jezebel
in 1948. During this same period, Christianna Brand wrote the screenplay for a film of
Death in High Heels
, and collaborated on another screenplay,
The Mark of Cain
(1948). A juvenile mystery,
, appeared in the same year. In 1950 she published a romantic suspense novel,
Cat and Mouse
, which was later chosen by Julian Symons for his list of “The Hundred Best Crime Stories” (
The Sunday Times
, London, 1959). In 1952 she collaborated on another screenplay,
, and also published one of the best of the Cockrill novels,
Fog of Doubt
). This novel has contributed to the author’s reputation for technical wizardry, not only on account of the intricate plot but because the final clue in the explanation of the crime is reserved for the last line of the book. (The same trick was used in
The Crooked Wreath
, but less memorably.)
Christianna Brand is, in fact, known for the cleverness of her last lines. But it must be said that these do more than merely give the final twist to the plot. They often carry an emotional or psychological burden which resonates in the mind long after plot details have faded.
Inspector Cockrill’s last book-length appearance was in
Tour de Force
(1955). Here the author exiles the inspector from his beloved England and sends him as an unwilling tourist to the Mediterranean island republic of San Juan el Pirata. Mr. Cecil, the dress designer from
Death in High Heels
(also mentioned briefly in
Green for Danger
), reappears as a member of the tour group. And of course murder is also present, with Cockrill turning out to be the local police inspector’s first choice as suspect.
Tour de Force
lived up to its title. It was also, as events proved, in the nature of a valedictory. For a combination of personal and commercial reasons, Christianna Brand wrote no further book-length detective fiction for the next twenty years.
That is not to say that there were no more books during this time. San Juan el Pirata, being too good a creation to abandon after only one novel, was the setting for
The Three-Cornered Halo
in 1957. This is principally a fantasia in the mode of Norman Douglas’s
, with the mystery element taking a subordinate role. The main character is Harriet Cockrill—“A true sister of my inestimable friend, Inspector Cockrill. Worthy of Scotalanda Yarrrda itself,” as the Grand Duke says at the end of the book. This was followed by a historical romance,
(1958), published under the name “China Thompson.” Two other historical romances,
Court of Foxes
The Radiant Dove
(the latter carrying the byline “Annabel Jones”), appeared in 1969 and 1974, respectively.
In 1960 the author published
Heaven Knows Who
, a thoroughly researched and compellingly written true-crime study of the controversial murder trial of Jessie M’Lachlan in Glasgow in 1862. An anthology of material on the theme of misbehaving children—called, appropriately enough,
—appeared in 1962, followed two years later by the first of a trio of children’s books about a group of “terribly, terribly naughty” children and the very odd nurse who arrives to keep them in line. The “Nurse Matilda” books remained in print for many years. They are completely delightful, with the text perfectly complemented by the superb drawings of Edward Ardizzone, well known as a painter and book illustrator. Ardizzone, who died in 1979, was Christianna Brand’s cousin, and the “Nurse Matilda” books are based on stories which the two of them were told as children.
In the mid-1970s, Christianna Brand returned to book-length mystery fiction, though not to the formal novel of detection in the style of her early successes. In a span of little more than three years there appeared a quartet of varied and satisfying novels.
Alas for Her That Met Me!
(1976), as by “Mary Ann Ashe,” is a romantic mystery loosely based on some details of the Madeleine Smith murder case (Glasgow, 1857).
A Ring of Roses
(1977) is a contemporary mystery, in which a group of often weak and sometimes repellent people are brought vividly to life. These two books were published first as paperbacks; the second title was subsequently reprinted in hardcover form.
The Honey Harlot
(1978) is a novel of sexual obsession which is also a reconstruction of the mystery of the
(the sailing ship which was found drifting and abandoned in mid-Atlantic in 1872, with no trace of her passengers or crew). And the most recent Christianna Brand novel to date,
The Rose in Darkness
(1979), is as tricky a murder puzzle as the author ever devised, peopled by a group of unconventional but entirely believable characters.