Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Penguin no. 779: Heads You Lose
by Christianna Brand

Henry Gold, who all his life had been a Londoner, knew for the first time that strange sense of proportion that comes of watching, from a lonely height, the little works of man. He looked down upon the small black ants toiling in the valley, and knew that he was God; he looked up at the glazed white bowl of the winter sky, and knew that he was the least of the little ants, scurrying this way and that in futile endeavour to avoid extinction by the careless feet of time; it frightened him a little, but he felt cleansed and chastened by the loneliness and silence.

The first murder of Heads You Lose seemed unusually gruesome for a Golden Age mystery: the body of a young kitchen-maid had been found in a wood, her arms tied with a belt, her head removed; scythe, body, and head found lying side by side. Several months had passed since the discovery and the police still had no suspects. It was assumed locally to be the work of a passing tramp.

But then two more murders on consecutive nights, echoing the first grisly murder but even more grotesque, with severed heads returned to bodies and each corpse adorned with an item of clothing taken from the local Squire's locked home. Not just any items of clothing, though, but ones chosen to mock the victims. It is this touch which narrows the list of possible suspects to Stephen Pendock, his servants, and the five guests staying in his home.

Various alibis soon eliminate the servants from the list of possibilities, and the six friends must face the unthinkable reality that one of their number has not only committed at least two murders, but has behaved with unspeakable brutality in decapitating the victims and leaving the garish displays. It seems inconceivable as they are all such unlikely murderers: the handsome Squire Pendock, his long-time family friend Lady Hart, her two stunning granddaughters Venetia and Fran, the languid intellectual James Nicholl, and the capable Jewish businessman Henry Gold; all likeable, well-educated, well-behaved, and upper-class. I'm sure this element of class was intentional, an additional layer of complexity to enhance the sense of the two later murders as impossible crimes.

This was Brand's second novel, and her first featuring Inspector Cockerill, the gruff detective who seems also to be a long-time friend of most of the suspects, and who they all call 'Cockie'. Despite his determination to find the murderer, the police remain baffled throughout; we see them searching for clues, developing suspicions, and testing their theories, but never really coming close to solving the crime. They watch the suspects with a dual purpose hoping to identify the murderer, but also aware that they may be protecting the innocent five from the unidentified and clearly dangerous sixth. Their constant surveillance adds pressure, confining the suspects, and increasing their mental torment.

The narrative largely focuses on the dynamics within this isolated and carefully watched group, on how each individual thinks, and on how they react to their situation: no means of escape, in close proximity to a murderer, at risk of being accused of a crime they didn't commit. The more analytical among them initially apply themselves to finding a way out of their dilemma, by proving that the crimes could have been committed by someone other than those suspected. But with time their focus turns, and they start to consider each other.

It was impossible not to feel twice cheated by this novel, first by the gruesomeness of the murders, and then by the completely inadequate and unconvincing solution. The murders were disconcerting, and they violated my expectations of a Golden Age novel: I want the crimes to be fantastic and unrealistic, but not horrific; I want to focus on the puzzle and not on the actual implications of murder in the real world. Did they need to be decapitations? I had the unpleasant suspicion that she came up with the title first, and wrote a novel to match, so that it provided an entertaining pun.

And perhaps I feel even more disappointment because I expected something much better from the author of the exceptional Green for Danger. And being on holiday, and with a suitcase full of books, I wish I had chosen something else to read.

My holiday is over and I'm sitting here in Heathrow with a few hours to kill before my flight home, reflecting on what has been a wonderful and unexpectedly successful holiday. The highlights are obviously the many Penguins I found and the expectation of an interesting year (actually years) of reading ahead, but there was so much more to enjoy: everywhere I went I met interesting and helpful strangers; bookshop owners regularly invited me down into caverns filled with books; I saw Allan Lane's personal collection of signed Penguins at the Bristol University archive; I was overwhelmed by the beautiful voices of the choirboys at Magdalen College's Evensong on Sunday night; and I had so many interesting discussions with people I met randomly. And then of course, I was lucky enough to meet people I had previously only known online, including Adam and Simon. And now I feel a little sad to be going home, but happy to know I will soon see my younger children.


  1. "It was assumed locally to be the work of a passing tramp."

    Oh! them nobs always tries to pass it off on us!

    I think Brand didn't hit her stride until Green for Danger. Death of Jezebel, London Particular (Fog of Doubt) and Tour de Force are her other most highly regarded titles I think--though there may not be Penguin editions!

  2. It interests me that you thought this was almost a violation of the golden age in terms of "It was impossible not to feel twice cheated by this novel, first by the gruesomeness of the murders, and then by the completely inadequate and unconvincing solution." Do you think the author was trying to do something different or simply be shocking?

    Saw Simon's post on meeting you, sounds like you had a lovely time.

  3. Sounds like you had a great trip. Safe journey and happy reading.

  4. Coincidentally, I am currently finishing up another Christianna Brand, CAT AND MOUSE. Not loving it, but liking it enough to read through until the end - with a bit of skipping.

    I did enjoy GREEN FOR DANGER, but my favorite, so far, of Brand's work is TOUR DE FORCE.

    I'm glad you had a great holiday anyway, despite the disappointing read.



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