Death Of Jezebel (1948) by Christianna Brand

“INSPECTOR COCKRILL, YOU THINK IT’S A JOKE, DON’T YOU? BUT WAIT TILL THE OPENING NIGHT OF THE EXHIBITION. ISABEL, PERPETUA, ANDERSON – WHICH WILL BE THE FIRST TO DIE?”

Isabel Drew, Earl Anderson and Perpetua Kirk were all, to varying degrees, responsible for the death of Johnny Wise. Seven years later, on the eve of a pageant in which Isabel – or Jezebel as she is sometimes referred to as – will take centre stage, they all receive death threats. Inspector Cockrill is called to look in on things, but finds nothing until he gets his own note.

And then in the middle of the pageant, as eleven knights on horseback surround a central tower, “Jezebel” is thrown to her death from that structure. But nobody could have been in the tower with her and when her body is inspected, it is found that she has been strangled by a pair of hands.

When another death follows, it will take both Inspector Cockrill and Inspector Charlesworth to find a solution. It just seems that there are far too many solutions to find…

The third of my ultra-obscure reads from my Bodleian Library trip, following No Alibi and Murder At Lilac Cottage, and I’m sure a number of you will be questioning the “ultra-obscure” tag. Yes, I know it’s available as an ebook in the US, but for whatever reason, none of her back catalogue is over here. Some titles have been, such as Heads You Lose, but they currently aren’t, and reprints over here seem extremely rare. Copies of grubby paperbacks change hands for over 70 quid – I have no idea why this book, of all of her work, is so rare. But in the UK, at least, it is.

Which is a shame, given that everybody raves about this as being one of the great impossible mysteries, and I’ve been wanting to read it for ages, so, fed up of waiting for a reprint or an affordable copy, I decided to reserve it at the Bod. After all, it’s got such a great reputation, I’m bound to love it, aren’t I?

Well, yes, to an extent. I felt a little like I did when I read Death From A Top Hat when I finished this. I can see why so many people seem to love it, I really enjoyed it and yet… something was a little missing. And I’m not entirely sure what.

Brand has a wonderful writing style, extremely distinctive and an absolute joy to read. Having her two sleuths sparring (and never really getting on) is a lovely idea, although it does seem odd that almost everyone knows Cockrill as the person who made bad mistakes in Green For Danger. There is a very sinister atmosphere where necessary – the discovery of the second body for example. The setting for the impossible crime is also suitably bizarre.

What was missing from my copy was a diagram of the setting for that murder. Scanning other reviews, it does seem that such a diagram exists in some copies of the book, but it did make it hard to visualise who was where (or was supposed to be) and the relative distances between them. Brand does describe the murder scene, but it took me a while to grasp how high the tower was, for example, and I never really grasped exactly what could and couldn’t have been done.

As the story progresses, we get multiple solutions and a slew of false confessions – I wasn’t convinced of the need or rationale for those, to be honest. Some of the false solutions bothered me too, as some of them involved Jezebel being pulled out of the tower by a noose that nobody noticed. Was there a reason that nobody would have noticed such a noose? Admittedly, it didn’t happen but it bothered me that anybody would have thought it could have.

At the end of the day, the solution and the finale are both very effective and clever. The method would never have worked, but if you suspend a little disbelief, it is clever, and there is a clue hidden in plain sight that is just beautiful.

Admittedly, reading this in one sitting probably wasn’t the best way to read this book. The other two were pretty straightforward and were fine, but this is the sort of book where you want to flick back and check things due to the intricacies of the plot. The edition in the library was a surprisingly fragile paperback, so I was reluctant to do that (notwithstanding being on something of a clock). Maybe with a map and more time, I would have seen this as the classic that others do. In the meantime, it’s still a very entertaining and clever mystery. I just don’t think it’s worth seventy-five quid (although admittedly I don’t think any book is worth that for a reading copy).

8 comments

  1. Your Top Hat analogy is a good one. For a devotee of GAD impossibilities this is a must read, but I liked it less than some other Brands, and like with the Rawson I think the problem is explaining the mechanical ingenuity just takes up too much room.

    Heap in Kindle. I have seen it on sale for $2 several times.

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  2. My U.S. first edition was a steal–roughly $95, and it’s in good shape. Most of the ones I see online go for about $500.

    I am one of those who thinks DoJ is the best impossible crime novel. It inspired me to write, so I’ll always love it. The solution to the puzzle reminds me of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. Both books are intellectually satisfying because they operate with horribly precise logic–more nightmare than reality.

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    • Another must read for puzzle fans . Rot13 spoiler next … V jnf rzoneenffrq abg gb fbyir vg orpnhfr V xarj Fnz Yyblq’f Trg Bss Gur Rnegu chmmyr. I also liked the double challenge to the reader. Cheeky! (But he beat me)

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  3. Steve, if you look on completed items on eBay the copy of Death of a Jezebel I sold recently has a photo of the diagram in the book

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    • Thank you for that! It took me a minute to track it down, but I did find it, and I snagged a screenshot. It’ll help immensely with my reading of the book, which I began thanks to this review (haven’t yet reached the murder).

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  4. Yes maps can be rather helpful when trying to get to grips with a plot. I was in a similar situation with Death at Broadcasting House as my edition lacked the map. A lot takes place within the rabbit warren known as the BBC so having a diagram would have helped. Thankfully the mystery itself is not as complex as Brand’s so I managed to figure it out without needing a visual aid.

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