The first novel by Christianna Brand, with the Inspector Cockrill was Heads You Lose, written in 1941. Before it, in the same year, Christianna, had made her debut with Death in High Heels, a novel who had given her a warm reception and that was served to spur, when she was still working as a clerk, convincing her to continue her career as a writer.
It’s a novel of impossible crimes, subtly macabre , veined by the veil of madness and in any case by the oddity that gives the novel its own special charm.
Stephen Pendrock is the squire of the village. Grace Morland is a painter, who now is talking to him on the terrace of his house. She is in love with him, maybe yes maybe no, but certainly she would like to live the rest of her life with him in Pigeonsford. The fact is that Stephen, so measured, so sober, and also so mature, secretly loves Fran, one of the nephews by Lady Hart that he is hosting in his mansion. Fran, however, is so young, so saucy, that Stephen is in doubt whether he really, fifty, may be of interest for her: his at the moment is a platonic love and does not know if it will ever become something else.
Grace paints at different times of the day, the landscapes that attract the most her: from the Stephen house’s terrace she can paint enjoying the best scenery, but she knows to be tolerated; nevertheless she imposed her presence, that for kindness has not been refused. She immediately has notice that Stephen only has his eyes for Fran, despite also James Nicholl is interested to her, young and wealthy bachelor. And because she is jealous of Stephen, really wants to despise the only thing that Fran has proven to be enthusiastic, a charming hat, that she makes everyone see: to her grandmother, Lady Hart; to her sister Venetia and to his brother-in-law Henry Gold, rich jew; to Stephen Pendrock; and Grace, who is there to paint, which says that not even dead in a ditch, she would like wear on the head a hat like that!
At that night her corpse is found, at the property belonging to the mansion, just in a ditch, with the Fran’s hat pulled down over her head , by the old butler Bunsen, who went in bycicle to visit his sister, and was returning to Pigeonsford. The shocking fact, that leaves everyone aghast, is that Grace Morlan has not only been killed, but also beheaded; and that on her head, as a kind of scarring, the reviled hat was pulled down on her head. It ‘obvious that only a few people were aware of what Gracehad said, and always the same people only knew where the hat had been placed, in what place of the house: so it is clear that if an offender must find, he must be found in the house.
The Inspector Cockrill, known familiarly as “Cockie” from the occupants of the house, because inhabitant in those zones, of this he is especially convinced: he was deeply disturbed at the sight of the Grace’s body, also because he had known Grace Morlan in his youth: “a sentimental goat “was for him, and then he had never had any stimulus affective against him although she had on several occasions attempted to be seduced. The sad fate of Grace: although she had tried to avoid being “old maid” for the rest of her life, no one had ever shown affectionate feelings towards her. Perhaps for her acidity that she showed at the first opportunity. The fact is that now she is dead. And too bad.
The firstalarm bellforCockie, isthe phone call thatcomesto policeand which comesfrom the house ofPendrock: to talk about isa woman,who claims to bethe killer, and claims that soonFranalsodie. Cockrillmust find the killer before he/she killsagain; andsince also the summer before, ascullery maid, after saying goodbye toher lover, had been foundin the groveof the estate,with his hands tiedbehind his back andhis headsevered from the bodybya sharp sickle, left thereclosely,thething becomes damnly urgent.. It’very strange thatafter oneyearare foundtwoheadless corpsesin the sameestate.
Another character peeks at the death of Grace: is her half-sister Pippy Le May, actress.
Pippy Le May subtly hated half-sister. When the crime took place she was far away and therefore it’s not a good reason she can be concerned. Pippy who is awake, saw something in that house, and really wants to take advantage. He’s going to blackmail someone? But also she is soon killed in a horrible way, beheaded. Near the tracks. It’s as if someone with an enormous force, he tore the collar from the trunk, leaving no footprints in the snow. If on the severed head from Grace had been put the Fran’s hat, now around the Pippy’s mangled neck the murderer put the scarf of the woman. In short, three people were beheaded, in less than a year. Everything revolves around this house, a cursed house.
Cockrill investigates but soon he finds himself up against a wall of silence: someone must have been in the house, certainly, to kill Grace Morland, perhaps Pippy Le May, and perhaps also the scullery maid killed at the year before. Covering each other the occupants of the house, it becomes extremely difficult to nail down the murderer to his/her responsibilities: in this situation, the virtually unassailable alibi make these last two crimes “impossible” to have occurred.
Of course it is strange to happen three crimes, all with the same characteristics,at the same place! Cockrill thinks and makes his conjectures, but to remove the wall created from the members of the house around them, each other, is no small thing. It seems they want to believe that the person responsible has come from the outside, but even they are reliable. In fact, as the Grace murder is at least strange, for the detail of the hat, that one hand at the same time mocking and mad, trod on the severed head by the painter, a sign that someone by force, even though all deny it, and no one saw anything, he/she must be returned to the home, stealing the hat from the box where it was put, and have it taken away, even the Pippy murder someone can not say that it is not curious: Pippy has returned to his home, but has forgotten her glasses at Pendrock’s home and then she has reported to her maid she would return there to take the glasses; but she has not returned. This thing reconnect the crime at Pendrock home. In this case, however, the detail that makes it all the more difficult, is that around the body there are not footprints but an expanse of untouched snow: how did the murderer to kill Pippy?
In a whirlwind of blows, Cockrill will nail the murderer, less guilty than we would think, for the murder of two cousins, but not for that of the scullery, of which will be blamed another person. Before it will make the name of a lot of persons as the killer: Trotty, the maid; Pippy (for Grace); the true killer; Lady Hart. Why, if did you mention the name of the murderer (by Cockrill, which he considers responsible, and of which he explains the actions and the guilt), then was another person accused? Because here Christianna Brand resorts to a trick she will use other times, for example in Tour de Force: to indicate the real murderer, then to invent another solution that put him in the shade, and then to return on his culpability.
Again, Christianna Brand surprises and charms. And once again, a hallmark of his narrative style, are the multiple solutions, which succeed each other, and the multiple culprits are indicated and discarded from time to time; but also the multiple identities of the same people, as we have already seen in other novels, for example in Tour de Force. But since this is the first novel, it is even more special.
The identification of the murderer comes almost unexpected. I say almost, because the careful reader (who had read the other novels in which a certain particular uses) may have been suspicious for a certain thing (which I do not mention, otherwise it is as if I took the name of the murderer). This thing, however, occurs in other novels: it reminded me Helen McCloy, about his masterpiece about the Doppelganger; and, above all, in the same way, in one of the masterpieces by Paul Halter, Le Brouillard Rouge. In other words, the murderess is not fully responsible, because he’s crazy, and after killing, he does not remember anything: it is as if he had acted in a state of trance, because epilepticus. Now, crazy killers in the novels of Halter, there are several, but, in that novel, the murderer, and his “modus operandi” are shown twice: first mentions about a certain thing he does, and then, in another step of the novel, takes this action in particular juncture that described before, but explaining it in all its horrible significance. Here, the same thing happens.
Another interesting thing, because it will also be used later, is the presence of a prologue: we will see a similar thing for example in Death of Jezebel.
Finally, there is the use of solutions that contemplate the locked rooms : in this case, it is explained by referring to the gymnastic skills by the killer (Carr already had experimented this, for example, in The Footprint in the Sky), in a way specifically, it will be taken verbatim from Joseph Comming in one of his stories; and much later, in a novel by William De Andrea: Killed on the Rocks, at a similar. But the really interesting thing is that in this novel, there are three victims and two separate killers. What does it mean? Christianna Brand that is inclined to the extreme originality, and for not bind the chariot to anyone, already in his first work. Which also reveals a great self-confidence. Moreover, the ploy, let’s face it, is the real “coup de theater” of the novel.
Finally, there is the use of solutions that contemplate the locked rooms: in this case, it is explained by referring to the gymnastic qualities by the killer (Carr already had experimented this, for example in The Footprint in the Sky), in a way specifically, it will be taken verbatim from Joseph Comming in one of his stories; and much later, in a similar manner at a novel by William De Andrea: Killed on the Rocks. But the really interesting thing is that in this novel, there are three victims and two separate killers. What does it mean? Christianna Brand is inclined to the extreme originality, and for not bind the chariot to anyone, already in his first work. Which also reveals a great self-confidence. Moreover, the ploy, let’s face, it is the real “coup de theater” of the novel. If Agatha Christie, on two occasions, had given a shove to the classic Whodunnit (before in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and after in Mrs McGinty’s Dead), also regulated strictly by SS Van Dine, in the case of Christianna Brand, the thing is more remarkable because it is performed on the occasion of her debut: while Van Dine, in order not to confuse the reader had forbidden that there was in an enigma novel over a murderer, here there are two!
I must note at this point that I was surprised by some comments by Christianna Brand when she describes Henry Gold, the jew husband of Venetia (Henry “Gold”, mind you): describes him as anti-Semitic propaganda of the that time described the Jews. The particularly strange is that it comes from a writer of Anglo-Saxon origin, a sign that this cultural setting was not own of certain individuals identified politically and geographically, but that the same cultural setting was more widespread than you think.
Already in his first novel of the Inspector Cockrill series, Christianna Brand sets up spectacular stagings, in the case of the murder of the scullery maid, and in the case of the murder of Grace and Pippy. But it happens also at her other novels (for example, Death of Jezebel and Tour de Force) and at some of her short stories (for example The Gemminy Cricket Case).
Finally,a characteristic thing:in somenovels byChristiannaBrand,the victims arebeheaded. It does not happenonlyinthis her first macabre divertissement,butalsoinDeath of Jezebel. I believe that this can probably be related also with the fact thatChristianna Brand was born in Malaysia, Borneo, where the dajachi practiced the beheading of enemies: this horrible practice may be stuck in her mind and then reproduced in her “crimes of paper”.
Pietro De Palma