Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Backstage Rage

「本番中の演出かご室。 大胆な犯行ですね」
「?!!! 」

"So in a stage cage room during a performance. What an adacious murder"
"The murderer must be very intellegent. What kind of trick did he use?"
"This case looks difficult"
"Yes. This story will take at least two weeks for us to solve"
"Sir, the criminal just confessed!"
"33 Minutes Detective"

 I did post the Tozai Mystery Best 100 last week, but I am not sure yet whether I am going to make a best-of-list, like last year. Partly also because I read quite some very good books this year for reading clubs, which makes it harder to make a list. But I might figure out something for that. Like a Japanese/Non-Japanese list or something like that. Still a week to go in this year, so we'll see.

Under normal circumstances, it is quite hard (or at least expensive) to get your hands on a copy of Christianna Brand's Death of Jezebel. When you're in a Mystery Club, you can just casually mention you want to read to the book, only to find out the following day that someone has been nice enough to bring his copy for you to read. Rare books, smare books! Anyway, a nice young lad called Johnny Wise finds his girl Perpetua in the arms of another man, "thanks" to the rather cruel Isabel Drew and commits suicide. Seven years later and Perpetua, the man Johnny found her with and Isabel (whom people also call Jezebel) all receive threatening letters. It also happens that all these players are to participate in a pageant, with Isabel playing the Queen in a tower, surrounding by her knights on horseback. And what happened at the pageant was that Isabel fell down the tower (after being killed), surrouding by her knights on horseback. And nobody in the public saw the murderer enter or leave the tower on stage!

I first have to say that the Johnny's suicide was kinda... fast. I mean, it happens in the first few pages of the book to set-up the story, but the jump between finding out his lover's infidelity and his suicide was quite abrupt. I get that finding your girlfriend in the arms of another man is less than pleasant, but to skip all the (psychological) steps leading up to suicide...

But having addressed that point, I can join the praising parade for Death of Jezebel. I wonder whether reviewing this book is some sort of ritual a mystery blog has to undergo before it is recognized as one. Anyway, first up, the murder! Who doesn't love an impossible murder, commited in front of many witnesses, on stage?! In a sense, all mysteries are a kind of theater, a play that unfolds in front of the reader's eyes and thus such murder stories are closer to meta-fiction than most people would initially think. And I love meta-fiction, so no objections from me.

I  won't say I'm a Brand expert, seeing as I've only read Tour de Force and seen the Green for Danger movie, but I am going to suppose that having multiple (fake) solutions and insane complex logical plotting is a characteristic of Brand. Which again is something I love, so more bonus points. The trick behind Jezebel's murder is complex and certainly impressive enough to hold the structure for a whole book (which isn't always the case for mystery novels). The trick also has a distinct, headless flavor to it you don't see that often in Golden Age mysteries, but something I certainly can appreciate walking round the bloody fields full of decapitated corpses and loose limbs that make Japanese detective novels (ok, it's not that bad. Only relatively).

My second not-sure-whether-this-is-a-Brand-characteristic is the observed murder setting: Tour de Force, Green for Danger and Death of Jezebel all feature impossible crimes, where the crime scene is under (almost) constant observation by multiple witnesses. These crime scenes are under natural observation (it is normal to overlook a beach, just like that doctors and nurses do have to look around in an operation room), with people all doing their own thing (walking around the beach; doing their own tasks in the operation room, the actors in a play), which gives the murderer leeway to execute his trick. The interesting thing is that Brand handles the same situation in very different ways, with different kind of tricks and solutions to the problem. So even if you recognize the setting, you probably won't see what Brand has up her sleeve this time. Which , making her murders all the more puzzling and fun to read. Or watch.

And one final point to make this post absurdly Brand-centric even though I hardly read her work: Death of Jezebel features both inspector Cockrill (of Tour de Force and Green of Danger) and Charlesworth (whom I know absolutely nothing about). Wait, sorry, I don't even have a point to make about this. It's just a fact I wanted to mention.

This is one of those novels that you really want to recommend to other people, only to remember at the last moment that the book is quite rare. And not everybody knows a guy who has a copy of the book available to borrow. Still, it might be a more realistic recommendation to most people, compared to recommending Japanese novels nobody can read. The things money can buy!

1 comment :

  1. Well, Charlesworth is Brand’s secondary series character, who made his debut in Death in High Heels, making Jezebel a crossover novel.

    And yes, plot ingenuity, multiple false solutions (usually coming from the suspects themselves as opposed to the detective figure) and impossible crimes are very characteristic of Brand's plotting technique, but also the closed circle of suspects and actually being pretty good at creating characters.

    I've always loved how important the characterization in London Particular was to the advancement of the plot and can recommend that one for your next Brand.

    You can also opt for Suddenly at his Residence, which has everything you found in the stories you've read now, but it has gotten very mixed reviews – and I thought it was only so-so.