Christianna Brand is quickly becoming one of my favorite “forgotten” authors. There are dozen of writers who were household names at one time, but have slipped from readers’ memories over the decades. Mystery-lovers devour Agatha Christie (rightly so) and might pick up a Dorothy Sayers or a Margery Allingham, but enthusiasts of the genre should also read E.R.C. Lorac, Dorothy MacArdle, John Dickson Carr, Mary Roberts Reinhart, and Christianna Brand (Though some may know Brand as the children’s author of the Nanny McPhee series).
Death of Jezebel features her recurring character Inspector Cockrill, a rumpled, unassuming detective. Like the Shakespearean “wise fool,” he makes outlandish observations and watches the chaos rattle around among the suspects. This cat among the pigeons strategy lets Cockrill enjoy his investigations, and the reader along with him.
[Cockrill] is content to leave fingerprint powder and magnifying glass to the experts, using their findings in a process of elimination, to get down to the nitty-gritty from there on. He has acute powers of observation, certainly; a considerable understanding of human nature, a total integrity and commitment, much wisdom; and as we know a perhaps overlong experience of the criminal world.” ~Christianna Brand, speaking about her Inspector Cockrill
In this novel, a group of friends puts on a medieval pageant at an exhibition in post-war London. They practice riding horses in formation, displaying brightly-colored flags before the appearance of the “damsel” on the castle balcony. In the days before the big event, the players receive death threats, which go largely ignored. But when the damsel falls to her death during the performance, the threats become very real. Enter Inspector Cockrill.
If the Kent Police benefited in any way by the conference held in London hat year, it was not by the devoted attention of their representative, Detective Inspector Cockrill. Cockie sat absently doodling: doodling pin-men on pin-horses, filling them out with tiny suits of armour, flying standards, flowing cloaks…” ~Pg.86
The puzzle of this mystery is pretty sharp, but where the book really shines is in Brand’s writing style. She has a wild flippancy that skirts the edge of recklessness. It’s like being on a careening roller-coaster. You know you will (ultimately) be fine, but you’re not exactly sure what’s coming next.
The exhibition crowds were thinning. It has been a wonderful day: but now weary women, burdened with purchases they would bitterly regret when they got home, fought for buses in the light summer rain, with cross husbands, slung about with Ohsofine nutmeg graters and Ohsosharp lemon peelers and Ohsotroublesaving gadgets of every description, lumbering irritably after them. The young ladies in the galleries argued with exhibitors about their commission, the demonstrators on the exhibition stands surreptitiously started to tidy away…” ~Pg. 84
Brand writes with a fearlessness that seems unlikely to resolve into a meaningful solution — and yet it does. And it is a joy to be along for the ride.
My thanks to Poisoned Pen Press for the advanced review copy.
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press (August 1, 2023)
Paperback: 256 pages