Christianna Brand (1907-1988) was one of the most popular authors of the Golden Age of British mystery writing. Born Mary Christianna Milne in Malaya and raised in India, Brand used her experience as a salesgirl as inspiration for her first novel, Death in High Heels (1941), which she based on a fantasy of murdering an irritating coworker. The same year, she debuted her most famous character, Inspector Cockrill, whose adventures she followed until 1957. The film version of the second Cockrill mystery, Green For Danger, is considered one of the best ever screen adaptations of a classic English mystery. Besides mysteries, Brand had success writing children’s fiction. Her Nurse Matilda series, about a grotesque nanny who tames ill-behaved children, was adapted for the screen in 2005, as Nanny McPhee. Brand received two Edgar nominations for the short stories “Twist For Twist” (1967) and “Poison in the Cup” (1969), as well as one for the non-fiction work Heaven Knows Who (1960). The author of more than two dozen novels, she died in 1988.
“You have to reach for the greatest of the Great Names (Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen) to find Christianna Brand’s rivals in the subtleties of the trade.” – Anthony Boucher, New York Times
“One of the great masters of English detective fiction.” — Francis M. Nevins, author of Cornell Woolrich
“[Brand] was ready to jig endlessly with her pieces, to reject and replace until there was not a single gap that her reader would detect.” — H.R.F. Keating, author of Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books.
Noah Stewart, recently passed away, wrote about Christianna Brand: “Ms. Brand is better known these days for having written the children’s books upon which the Nanny McPhee films were based, but she got her start writing mysteries. Her mysteries have always been difficult to obtain — one of them, Death of Jezebel, may take half your life to track down — but they are both delightful and nearly impossible to solve, although quite fair. (For instance, a vital clue to the solution of 1955’s Tour De Forceis displayed openly, but in the opening paragraphs of the book, an excellent piece of misdirection; by the time the information is useful, you’ve forgotten all about it.) Green For Danger was made into a brilliant film in 1946, starring Alastair Sim, and is her best-known novel. It is certainly good, and I also enjoyed Suddenly at His Residence (also published as The Crooked Wreath), London Particular (also published commonly as Fog of Doubt) and the three mentioned above. Heads you Lose and Death in High Heels, from the beginning of her career, are less successful; try not to start with them, if you can. One of the things that I find most enjoyable is that Brand has the ability to create characters who are quite realistic, and flawed, without making them stand out as being obviously guilty of the crime by dint of being the only realistic characters in the book. This set her apart from her contemporaries. Yet, the puzzles at the heart of the novels are so difficult and complex that you could never, ever guess the answers; these are mysteries that need to be solved with logic and observation, not intuition.” (Noah’s Archives)
For an introduction to Christianna Brand books, I’ve selected the following titles, thanks to the suggestions of several bloggers whose views I hold in high regard, and which I look forward to reading soon. Stay tuned.
Green for Danger, 1944 (Inspector Cockrill #2) Synopsis: As German V-1 rockets rain down on the English countryside, the men and women of the military hospitals fight to stay calm. The morning after a raid, Doctor Barnes prepares for a routine surgery to repair a postman’s broken leg. But with general anesthesia, there is always danger. Before the first incision is made, the postman turns purple. Barnes and his nurses do what they can, but the patient is dead in minutes. The coroner calls for an inquest. Barnes has a history of lost patients, and cannot afford more trouble. Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Cockrill is unimpressed by the staff at the hospital, which he finds a nest of jealousy, indiscretion, and bitterness. One of them, doctor or nurse, murdered the postman—and it won’t be long before they kill again.
Death of Jezebel, 1948 (Inspector Cockrill #4) Synopsis: Ever since she drove her best friend’s fiancé to kill himself, Isabel Drew has been nicknamed Jezebel. She is domineering, arrogant, vain—and beautiful enough to get away with it. She is starring as a princess in a medieval pageant when her past catches up to her. On tiny slips of paper, threats appear, promising death to Isabel and those around her. Fearing she may be attacked, she invites the brilliant Inspector Cockrill to keep her safe after the performance. But her precautions come too late. During the first show, Isabel falls from her tower and is dead before she hits the ground. She was strangled, and the room she fell from was locked from the inside—a crime too daring to be possible. But Inspector Cockrill saw it all, and unraveling the impossible is his specialty.
London Particular (a.k.a. Fog of Doubt), 1952 (Inspector Cockrill #5) Synopsis: Few were disappointed when Raoul Vernet was found with his head bashed in, dead in a pool of his own blood. On vacation in England, the Belgian seducer comes to visit Matilda, an old flame from a few years before. She agrees despite suspicions that Vernet has been deploying his legendary charm on another member of the family: young Rosie, who has returned from her Swiss boarding school carrying a child. None of the family members were in the house when Raoul was killed, but all were within a fog-choked London mile. Rosie calls in the brilliant Inspector Cockrill to clear the family’s name, but what he finds is a twisted clan of seven people, each as likely to laugh at a murder as commit one.
Tour De Force, 1955 (Inspector Cockrill #6) Synopsis: From the moment he steps on the plane, Inspector Cockrill loathes his fellow travelers. They are typical tour group bores: the dullards of England whom he had hoped to escape by going to Italy. He gives up on the trip immediately, burying his nose in a mystery novel to ensure that no one tries to become his friend. But not long after the group makes landfall at the craggy isle of San Juan el Pirata, a murder demands his attention. The body of a woman is found laid out carefully on her bed, blood pooled around her and fingers wrapped around the dagger that took her life. The corrupt local police force, impatient to find a killer, names Cockrill chief suspect. To escape the Italian hangman, the detective must find out who would go on vacation to kill a stranger.
(Source: Mysterious Press)