Heads You Lose by Christianna Brand

Heads You LoseWar rages across Europe but at Pigeonsford, in the English countryside, life tries to go on. Grace Morland spends her days visiting the house, in theory for her painting, but in fact she is desperately in love with Stephen Pendock, the squire. Unfortunately, he is in love with young Francesca Hart. Who is in love with… well, you get the idea. But one day, the emotions bubbling under the surface erupt – over a hat!

Grace informs Francesca, on viewing Francesca’s new hat, that she “wouldn’t be seen dead in a ditch in a thing like that.” Grace storms off and the next morning, Grace is found dead in a ditch. But for some reason, the killer seems to have gone back into the house, fetched the hat, and stuck it on Grace’s head. A head which is no longer attached to her body. Hence the wonderfully appropriate title…

Christianna Brand wrote a number of mystery novels, seven (well, six and a book of short stories) of which feature Inspector Cockrill who investigates here. In fact this is his first outing, and, indeed, Brand’s first book. And it fits perfectly for Past Offences’ Crimes of the Century 1941 theme for December 2015. Green For Danger is the only one that I’ve read so far, and I enjoyed that one a lot.

This one isn’t as good as that classic, but it comes close. The dramatis personae indicate clearly that there are only eleven characters, of which one will be the killer and two will be victims, so it ties down the circle of suspects very nicely. And for a long part of the book, it seems that no-one could be the killer. We get a reasonable insight into the motivations of most of the characters, so as with more recent writers such as Michael Jecks, the author needed to do something impressive to make the identity of the killer work. The second murder seems to involve an impossible “no footprints in the snow” killing but…

… don’t get too excited about that. Because the ending is what lets the book down. It’s gripping, no question of that, and it is fairly clued, but it shares a problem with the only one of Jecks’ books that I had a bit of an issue with. And the “impossible” crime has the simplest of all solutions.

The setting – during wartime but away from any action – is interesting, not least for the Jewish character. It seems at times that the notion of being Jewish is almost as if he is from a different species. I’m not saying that Brand was anti-semitic, but at least three separate characters seem to have issues with the Jewish character in a patronising sort of way in the very least. Which is odd, as I would have thought that the plight of the Jewish race at that moment in history would have garnered a bit more sympathy – was it not known at the time what was happening? My modern history is a little rusty.

Oh, and congratulations to Inspector “Cockie” Cockrill for taking the “stupidest nickname for a policeman” award that was previously held (jointly) by “Handsome” Alleyn and “Foxkin” Fox. For goodness sake, even the suspects call him Cockie…

Overall, an enjoyable read, somewhat let down by the ending. Worth A Look.

 

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23 comments

  1. The constantly calling Cockrill “Cockie” – even, as you say, by the suspects in the case, and not even meant dismissively – frankly irritates the hell out of me, to the point where it takes me out of the narrative and manages to interrupt my enjoyment of the Brands I’ve read. Plot-wise and especially character-wise I have really enjoyed her to date (though I’ve not read this one), but that’s one element of her writing that really grates!

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  2. The recent spate of Golden Age novels don’t seem to be doing too well with their ratings… This is just about the last unread title by Christianna Brand sitting on my shelf – perhaps I should have read it before ‘Death of Jezebel’

    I, too, find the nickname ‘Cockie’ somewhat bizarre… Perhaps it’s meant to be ironic given his vacillation between confidence and insecurity?

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    • The problem with the Golden Age novels is that I can’t help but compare them to Christie and I need to get out of that mindset as they are often trying to take a slightly different tack. This one is, as I said, a good read, but the ending is what spoilt it for me. But others – Death Of An Airman and Knock, Murderer, Knock were outstanding. And with the exception of The Pit-Prop Syndicate, they were all worth reading.

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      • The good news is that I think ‘Heads You Lose’ is likely to be =one of Brand’s weakest efforts. I would say ‘Green for Danger’ and ‘Death of Jezebel’ do not fare badly at all in comparison with Christie’s work, and I enjoyed ‘Tour De Force’, ‘London Particular’ and ‘Suddenly at His Residence’ as well.

        I’ve been somewhat reluctant to try out ‘Death of an Airman’, so thanks for the recommendation. 🙂

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  3. The only parts I remember from this book are the severed heads and the severely disappointing impossible crime angle, which was the main reason for reading the book. Luckily, I had already read Green for Danger at that point.

    Good to see you didn’t fight that rush of nostalgia and whipped out a The Three Investigators novel.

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  4. Sadly, a lot of the fiction of the time has a seam of casual anti-Semitism running through it. I guess what we would find racist today was more acceptable back then, and although what the Nazis were doing to Jewish populations was known of in certain circles, the full horror of what was perpetrated in the camps etc. was yet to emerge. Certainly attitudes began to change after the war, but in 1941 attitudes towards ethnic minorities were still somewhat entrenched in society.

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    • People in the UK knew about the persecution of the Jews as soon as the Nazis came to power. The New Statesman ran a series of articles describing what was going on as early as 33/34, and in the same year there were public meetings and lectures on the plight of the Jews.

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  5. This one (despite the let-down ending) sounds good. I’ve read only Green for Danger and Death of a Jezebel (long ago) and would like to find time for more Brand (she says as Tour de Force stares reproachfully from the TBR stacks…).

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