Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Tour De Force - Christianna Brand

In the opening pages of Tour de Force Christianna Brand's detective Inspector Cockrill is seated in an airplane preparing to land in Italy. His seatmate is terrified of flying and buries her head in his chest and clutches at his arm. She then apologizes for overreacting, plucking her red dyed hair off his sleeve "I seem to moulting all over like a red setter." She examines the half red/half brown strand and adds 'Well, like a setter." And Cockie thinks to himself "She's one of Them." A tourist, that is. He is already tired of the group with whom he will be travelling for the next week. Brand has a lot of fun satirizing packaged vacation tours in the first few chapters. We are treated to a nightmare group in the exposition that include Cecil Prout, a flamboyantly gay fashion designer; Miss Trapp, a lonely rich woman being pursued by Fernando, the swarthy and attractive Italian tour guide; Leo Rodd, a one armed ex concert pianist and his devoted but fawning wife Helen; the red haired brassy young woman turns out to be Louvaine Barker, a famous novelist; and rounding out the group is Vanda Lane, a reclusive young woman with romance on her mind.

There is much poking fun at the pitfalls and comedy of travelling in groups: bad hotels, bad meals, the person with the weak stomach, the cheapskate, the complainer and all the types found in a tourist environment. But it's not all fun and games. The final sentence in Chapter Two warns us that the group is en route not only for Siena, Pisa, and the island of San Juan de Pirata but also en route for murder. One of the group soon turns up dead.

It is Vanda Lane who is found stabbed in her hotel room and arranged in a manner resembling some sort of  ritual.  She is wearing a wet kimono and is resting atop a crimson colored shawl with her still wet hair fanned outward. Her hands are clutched around an ornamental dagger protruding from her chest. Also, a notebook has been removed from her room. When it is found it contains intimate facts and secrets on her fellow travellers. Could it be that the loner who seemed to make no friends among the group was actually a blackmailer?

Adding to the mystery is the fact that it seems that the only people with a motive for killing Miss Lane were all in view of Inspector Cockrill at the time of the murder. Three people were on the beach sunning themselves, one man was on a raft in the ocean, another in a duck boat pedaling through the sea, and the sixth person was seated next to Cockie varnishing her toenails. No one could've left the beach or the water without being seen by the policeman. How then did one of these six people manage to get into the hotel and stab Vanda Lane?

Many Golden Age writers have trademarks in their novels. Ellery Queen had the dying clue, John Dickson Carr was the master of the locked room, and I am beginning to think that Christianna Brand is the mistress of the multiple solution murder mystery. As in Death of Jezebel where the accusations and solutions bordered on parody and Suddenly at His Residence where the suspects themselves turned sleuth and came up with ingenious solutions to the murder, Tour De Force is another example of this talented author setting out to prove every suspect could be the murderer. Not only does Inspector Cockrill challenge each suspect by pointing out how they could have evaded his sightlines, escaped from the beach or sea, and killed Vanda, but later the characters turn on each other with several accusations combined with some clever rearranging of the events to come up with at least three more variations. There are multiple arrests, too, and the first to be taken into custody is Cockie himself. Luckily, the police guard is a lazy incompetent who forgets to lock the cell and the inspector simply walks out of his cell, up the stairs, and past the sleeping cop to return to the hotel.

Just when you think Brand has exhausted her supply of possible murderers and presented us with the final solution she has one more trick up her sleeve. The finale is worthy of the best of John Dickson Carr or Agatha Christie. It's a stunner. And it's one that still adheres to the fair play rules. Astute and canny readers can spot the correct clues (and there are many) and arrive at the correct solution.

The requisite map showing position of all the suspects prior to the murder

This was my redemption review for the Italian leg of the Crime Fiction on a EuroPass Challenge. I may not have liked Massimo Carlotto, but I can highly recommend this murderous trip the island of San Juan de Pirata. Aside from Brand's masterful Death of Jezebel I think this is her best detective novel of the impossible crime subgenre. It is, just as the title tells us, her tour de force.

16 comments:

  1. It sounds like a riot- I wonder if she was inspired by the way the movie "Green for Danger" had a large comedy element?

    I highly disliked "Suddenly at His Residence", because it starts out as a self-aware parody and then takes itself seriously after the murder... not a wise move, because the various accusations border on tedium.

    However, the multiple solutions in "Green for Danger" and "Death of Jezebel" are brilliant, no question about it.

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  2. As clever and riveting as the book is, I still think it's a peg down from the big three Brand novels. However, in spite of this, its probably still one of the best busman holiday mysteries, not penned by Christie, in the genre – and I simply love the, uhm, modest title of the story.

    In a just world, she would've been remembered as one of the Crime Queens.

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  3. I didn't read the book Green for Danger but liked the film. I'll have to try this!

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  4. I hadn't heard of Brand till date and suddenly in a span of 30 minutes her name has cropped up twice. Somebody strongly recommended her Green for Danger and now this book.

    I so want to read her now.

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  5. Green for Danger gets all the attention. It was made into a movie with Alastair Sim as Inspector Cockrill. Rick mentioned the movie in his comment. It also is the one detective novel of Brand's to be reprinted multiple times in several hardcover and paperback editions by multiple publishers. You'd think she only wrote the one book. I find so much of her other work far better. And if you can find Death of Jezebel read that one too. That book is truly is her masterpiece, I think.

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  6. I so want to read this one, John. I've never read Brand. But Les recommended GREEN FOR DANGER very highly and I loved the movie.

    Okay so these three Brand books will be must reads for me:

    TOUR DE FORCE (LOVE the title!)
    GREEN FOR DANGER and DEATH OF A JEZEBEL.

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  7. You know how I feel. I discovered Brand during Bev's Vintage Mystery Challenge, and I am still embarrassed that I had missed such a fantastic writer. As TomCat said, she deserves to included in the top rank.

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  8. Yvette, you should also add London Particular (a.k.a. Fog of Doubt) to that list.

    Story wise, it's just as good as her best books, like Green for Danger and Death of Jezebel, but it's very sober in tone - and the fact that all the personages are friends of eachother, who genuinely care for one another, also makes it one of her darkest novels.

    John, have you read London Particular? I'd be interesting to read your thoughts on that book.

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  9. Tom Cat -

    Fog of Doubt and Cat and Mouse are in the TBR pile. I'm hoping to knock off those in the coming weeks. I would like to have all of Christianna Brand's novels and a volume of short stories reviewed here. I have a great fondness for her quirky blend of satire and puzzle in her mystery writing.

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  10. "Tour de Force" is pretty clever: I remember still being surprised by it, even though I read it after Nicholas Blake's "The Widow's Cruise" which (if I've got the chronology right) steals setting and trick from Brand

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  11. I like this one a lot too. I didn't deduce the solution and thought very clever, dazzling even; though perhaps one could argue it's on the implausible side.

    I think part of the reason people like Green for Danger the best is the the WW2 atmosphere. That one fooled me too.

    I agree with Patrick's comments on Residence. I found that one disappointing. When Brand gets serious she can get kind of maudlin and silly.

    I read Death of Jezebel about ten or twelve years ago, but I don't remember it that well, except that it was an impossible crime during a pageant of some sort and there were rubber planters from Malaysia! It didn't make that great an impression on me, obviously, though now I'm feeling I must have been in an off mood when I read it (that does happen).

    Another notable thing about Tour de Force is it picks up Mr. Cecil, the amusing dress designer from Death in High Heels, her first book (it has multiple solutions too, a great milieu and is highly entertaining, though not so ingenious as her later ones), and gives him a major role. And in Green for Danger, we learned he really got his designs from a character in that book. so she had this ongoing minor narrative thread the developed over fifteen years. Pretty neat!

    The tragedy is that she mostly stopped writing detective fiction novels after 1955. Maybe she couldn't keep up the ingenuity, but it was fun while it lasted!

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  12. Cat and Mouse is a full-scale Gothic--rather disappointing I thought. Symosn says it's her best, but that's because it's suspense (i.e., Crime Novel), as opposed to detection. It's the dogma speaking.

    Blake stole from Brand too? That would have been a only few years after he stole from Highsmith (which he says he didn't do deliberately, hmmmm). Although to be fair the Highsmith plot was used before Highsmith, by a British Golden Ager.

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  13. Ordered TOUR DE FORCE on your recommendation, John. Heaven help you if I don't like it. HA!

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  14. Curt -

    Thanks for stopping by. I liked Cecil Prout. He's almost a stereotype, but he seemed oddly real to me. I've known lots of men like Cecil in my life so I wasn't too harsh on Brand for her depiction of a nelly queen. He made me laugh with him not at him. Big difference.

    I have all of Brand's books and have been reading them in a strange order. Had I known about the evolution of Prout's character I would've gone chronologically. Thanks for the inside tip.

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  15. John

    I've been deliberately avoiding my usual websites, getting the book finalized for the publisher. But I sent it off yesterday. I mentioned you and your site in the acknowledgments, by the way.

    Cecil is a good character. He's what I call a Golden Age Mystery Queen, but he breaks out of the mere caricature to which homosexuals are so often confined in Golden Age mystery and becomes a person. Death in High Heels is quite striking, because it was published in 1941 and the characters are already referring to Cecil and his "boyfriend." It's made quite clear that the characters are sexually involved and everyone just takes it for granted, without the really nasty snark characteristic of the times.

    It is light years beyond Ngaio Marsh's disappointing presentation of gay characters in Death in Ecstasy, from a few years earlier. A lot of people say now that Ngaio Marsh was lesbian, but you sure wouldn't guess it from the portrayal of gay characters in her books: ninny queens (Death in Ectasy); nasty queen (Final Curtain); self-loathing lesbian (Singing in the Shrouds). Can't recall any others.

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  16. Scott Ratner (monescu)October 8, 2011 at 9:59 AM

    I like TOUR DE FORCE, but as beautifully clued as the solution is, it also centers around a single key implausibility that almost puts it in the range of Christie's MURDER IN MESOPOTAMIA.

    DEATH IN HIGH HEELS was filmed in 1947 as a quickie followup to the success of GREEN FOR DANGER. I have a copy. Though it's not nearly as good a film (or plot) as GFD, it's certainly an interesting curio, and to my knowledge is the one film, theatre, or television appearance of Mr. Cecil.

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