Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Crooked Wreath (1946) - Christianna Brand

I am beginning to think that Christianna Brand was a master of the multiple solution. This is the second book of hers where I have encountered such ingenuity in constructing several solutions to the same crime. Ellery Queen did it well in some of his early books (The Greek Coffin Mystery, most notably) and other writers tried their hand at it such as Anthony Berkeley, J. J. Connington, Leo Bruce, Michael Innes and even the Grand Dame herself Agatha Christie, who tried everything at least once. But with each of those writers' books it was always a detective (or detectives) propounding the different solutions. What Brand does is unique to her for the time period. She has the suspects accusing each other in ways that make use of all the facts and clues.

Sir Richard has been found dead in his study in a lodge separate from the estate. A sand covered pathway leading to the lodge is tended to daily by a gardener who uses a roller to remove marks and then adds more sand to the path. Only one set of footprints is found leading to and from the lodge and they belong to Claire who discovered the body first thing in the morning while bringing Sir Richard his breakfast tray. An autopsy will later prove he had been poisoned the night before. How did the murderer get into the lodge and administer the poison without leaving any traces of having entered or left?

One of the characters, Edward Treviss - the young grandchild of Sir Richard's second wife Bella - is thought by nearly everyone to suffer from an odd psychological condition that sends him into fugue states where he possibly engages in activities then has absolutely no memory of having done them. In an effort to shield the 18 year old man from police suspicion the family lies about certain events and misleads Inspector Cockrill.

It is Sir Richard's will, however, that causes everyone to turn on each other. Prior to his death Sir Richard threatened to disinherit every one of his blood relatives and he planned on writing a new will that night. Problem is no one could find the will. Later it is discovered that the will was witnessed by the gardener and his wife so it must exist. But where is it? Destroyed? Hidden? And that's when the plot starts swirling into a maelstrom of accusations.

Christianna Brand (circa 1950)
Unlike some old melodrama where one character jumps up from the davenport, points a finger and maliciously shouts, "You! You did it, you murderous fiend!" the accuser in a Brand mystery has ample facts to back up the claim. In The Crooked Wreath (also published as Suddenly at His Residence) this happens no less than five times. The jury foreman at the inquest accuses a character, the gardener's wife accuses someone else, one of the grandchildren accuses her cousin's wife, and two other grandchildren accuse the former's husband. In each instance such clues as the lack of rose petals on a walkway, a glass with no fingerprints, a fountain pen with a plunger, a dog that can catch sugar cubes in his mouth, a shattered vase, and the ability for a syringe to shoot liquid several feet are all insightfully used to construct a case against the accused. It's an enviable feat to concoct so many variations of how the crime could have been carried out - especially since it's a rather odd poisoning murder. Brand exhibits finesse and ingenuity in each of the five accusations. Even Mrs. Brough, the gardener's wife, who seems such a minor character at first, steps into the foreground with not one, but two daring pronouncements of her own. She first dares to point the finger at the victim's widow (her employer!) and does so defiantly and wickedly. Later she exudes an unctuous side when she insinuates that an illicit sexual romp occurred and attempts to blackmail the two parties involved.

Aside from the merry-go-round of pointing fingers I could not help but notice an interesting parallel to another very well known crime novel. At one point Bella, Richard's second wife, has an long theatrical monologue in which she reveals how much she loathes the estate and the haunting presence of Serafita, Richard's first wife. In a scene right out of Du Maurier's Rebecca Bella says "...more and more the memory of her came to dominate [Richard's] life -- and my life." And then as passionately as Maxim de Winter denounced his wife she concludes her speech with this revelation: "I kill for possession of this place! I hate every stone of it!" The memory of the estate's first mistress pervades Brand's story just as the first Mrs. de Winter taints and haunts Manderlay. Serafita was a former dancer and on the anniversary of her death a wreath of her favorite roses is placed around her portrait. Little boxes containing her gloves permanently adorn the mantelpieces throughout the home, her old ballet slippers also serve as mementos. It is as if - like Rebecca - she is still alive and will not leave the house.

Little do the characters realize how the house itself will play a crucial and shocking role in the harrowing climax. I doubt any reader will see what is coming although there are plenty of clues to the disaster that ends the book. It is a gripping and intensely cinematic finale -- perfectly suitably for such a brilliantly engineered detective novel.

6 comments:

  1. Another great review for a book that's new to me! And my husband wonders why my list of books to be bought never gets any shorter no matter how many I buy..... I loved (and own) Brand's *Green for Danger* and have read *The Spotted Cat & Other Mysteries from Inspector Cockerill's Casebook" but have yet to get my hands on any other.

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  2. Forgot to say...I've got your latest conquest added to your tally. And as an added bonus, I've given you an award. You can see it here: http://myreadersblock.blogspot.com/2011/02/im-too-stylish-for-my-blogtoo-stylish.html

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  3. Your reviews are much appreciated. I've had a copy of this under the "Suddenly At His Residence" title for some time. After reading your review I will read it ASAP.

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  4. Thanks again for the award, Bev! (sent you an email, too)

    Just a heads up. You'll probably have better luck finding this book in a paperback edition under the original British title Suddenly at His Residence. It appears as The Crooked Wreath only in the first US edition hardcover (Dodd Mead, 1946).

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  5. Another book to add to the list. I just finished a collection of Brand's short stories ("Brand X") and I am astounded at her virtuosity. A lovely depiction of her home in Wales. A terrifying description of the night her lodgings were bombed during the Blitz. And some seriously creepy stories. She certainly had a fertile and feverish imagination, and a very dark view of the human race. Anyone know if there is a bio of her? I've looked but couldn't find one. She'd be a worthy subject.

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  6. Ron -

    Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words. This is definitely one of the best books in the entire genre.

    Carol -

    A bio on Brand is long overdue. Patricia Highsmith has been honored with two bio books in the past seven years and Brand has none. Something wrong there. I seem to recall reading somewhere that she is a distant relative of Otto Penzler's - owner of The Mysterious Book Shop and founder and editor-in-chief of The Mysterious Press.

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