Tour De Force (1955) by Christianna Brand

Inspector Cockrill is heading off on holiday – a package holiday to Italy. He is less than enthused by his travelling companions, but as the group settles into their hotel on the island of San Juan el Pirata, bonds begin to form between the holidaymakers. Romance begins to blossom, some appropriate, some less so, but tensions begin to form as well. And soon, inevitably, murder strikes…

Unfortunately, everyone has a seeming ironclad alibi for the crime, namely Inspector Cockrill himself – all of the suspects were in his eyeline when the murder took place. With the local police having their own agenda (namely arresting and executing anyone they feel like), it falls to Cockrill to find the truth. But when the killer strikes again, there seems a reasonable chance that no one is getting off the island alive.

Tour De Force was Christianna Brand’s eighth mystery novel and, I think, the sixth outing for Inspector Cockrill. To my slight surprise, I’ve read all of the preceding books – Heads You Lose, Green For Danger, Suddenly At His Residence, Death Of Jezebel and London Particular. The reason I’m surprised at that is that I genuinely didn’t realise that I’d read that many of her books. People in my corner of the reading world tend to rave about Brand’s work but for the most part, she’s never quite clicked for me. Not that I haven’t enjoyed her work – I think I’d say that I did really like all of the preceding titles that I did really enjoy them, with the exception of London Particular – and she has a very distinctive voice, but they’ve never quite clicked with me. Even the legendary Death Of Jezebel has a little bit too much going on in the solution – they really stuck a SPOILER in the SPOILER?

So what about Tour De Force?

I’ve mentioned that recently – well, for the past few months – I’ve had trouble getting into a book. If it doesn’t grab me instantly, I’ve got to lock myself away with it to absorb the first few chapters. That’s what I did with this one, and it certainly worked. I’d recommend reading this all the way to the murder and you’ll probably find yourself hooked. It’s definitely a book that needs reading in largish chunks to absorb the atmosphere and get to know the characters.

As for the mystery – well, it’s an impressive deception on the part of Brand. While it isn’t really an impossible crime, it’s certainly a puzzler and while everything is there for the reader to piece together, as is usual for Brand, everything is there for a number of multiple fake endings. It’s a gambit that only works in the hands of a great mystery writer – heck, even Christie fluffed it once – but Brand plays it just right here.

I think there’s a possibility that this might be my favourite Brand title so far – I do need to give Green For Danger another look soon – and there are still gaps in my reading. But there are affordable copies of this out there on the second hand website, and I can heartily recommend this if you haven’t read it yet.

22 comments

  1. I unfortunately read this one having known who the murderer was… I still loved the character and the atmosphere, though, and I think that this has Brand’s best cluing.

    I wonder which Christie you’re mentioning. I can think of one or two that could fit the bill. One is a favorite of mine, the other not so much…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read this last autumn, when I found myself in an “I really should read more Brand” frame of mind. I really wish I’d had your advice about reading at least through the murder in one go. Because, though I liked it and found it diverting, I had real trouble remembering which name went with which character; and I could have used a map, as I found it hard to visualize the crucial locations with the precision needed. So it didn’t quite add up for me, though I enjoyed the experience along the way. I suspect I just didn’t concentrate well enough.

    Like

  3. I like this one, but my problem with it is somewhat akin to my problem with casting a 1941 model Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon. Astor is believable to me as a woman that Bogart might be attracted to. But I don’t find her believable as a woman who is so universally desirable that she can count on getting any man she wants.

    Similarly, I believe that the deception in this work might work on somebody. I just don’t believe it’s a deception that the culprit would feel safe that it would work on everyone!

    The clueing is magnificent, but I’m just too bogged down by what I consider the central credibility problem?

    I’m one of the Death of Jezebel zealots. What is your difficulty with it? Please PM me, email me (monescu4@yahoo.com) or put it in ROT13 here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s not that I dislike it, I just find the mechanics of the solution too contrived. While some will find the “Urnq va gur uryzrg” wonderfully creepy, which it is, I also find it too bizarre that anyone would have thought they’d get away it. I prefer my impossible mysteries to have simple, if unlikely, solutions, not those that no one would ever try…

      Like

      • I’m the biggest Death of Jezebel mark out there, I revisit the audiobook every few months, and even I try not to dwell too much on aspects of the solution which go from implausible to just downright absurd, such as the detail you allude to. The fact that I’m so in love with gur obql guebja qbja sebz gur gbjre gheavat bhg gb abg or n qenzngvp pyvpur ohg n qryvorengr npg prageny gb gur fhpprff bs gur gevpx helps me turn a blind eye to some of the other elements.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It’s funny, I have no problem with that element. The culprit is a bit of a risk-taking nut, and it’s a rather pragmatic alibi device, really (and it was originally intended to serve the double purpose of torturing a later I ended victim so recognized as not deserving of such punishment) . I have more problems with the fact that character whistles the only tune she knows. I understand only being able to play one song on the piano or ukulele, but only knowing one sing to whistle? That doesn’t make sense.

        As for Tour de Force, again, I think someone could get fool someone with it, but I can’t believe anyone could believe that they’d fool EVERYONE with it. This ain’t a couple of inches of visibility around the eyes.

        Like

    • I’m not sure pragmatic is the word I would use. It’s an utterly bonkers alibi trick. So much so that Brand didn’t even try to explain away how n uryzrg pbagnvavat n urnq vafvqr jbhyq unir erznvarq onynaprq ba na rzcgl fhvg bs nezbhe. Gb n yrffre qrterr, V nyfb svaq vg hayvxryl gung gur phycevg jnf noyr gb erzbir gjb fhvgf bs nezbhe sebz gur unyy jvgubhg nalbar abgvpvat, rfcrpvnyyl nf gurer jnf n punenpgre jubfr bayl wbo jnf gb fvta va gur xavtugf nf gurl neevirq. Gurerf nyfb gur snpg gung abg n fvatyr crefba abgvprq gung gur fcner fhvg bs nezbhe gung jnf NYJNLF gurer jnf fhqqrayl tbar. Honestly, it wasn’t until I started looking at DoJ as Brand lampooning the impossible crime genre, particularly the convoluted solutions, and stopped trying to convince myself that any part of it was meant to be practiceable or taken seriously, that I became far more able to enjoy it for what it is.

      Regarding Tour de Force, gur ivpgvzf snpr jnf nyjnlf pnxrq jvgu urnil znxr hc, gurer jnf n fgebat snzvyl erfrzoynapr, gur phycevg jnf noyr gb anvy ure pbhfvaf znaarevfzf, rirelbar ryfr ba gur gbhe unq bayl xabja gurz n znggre bs qnlf naq nal creprvirq punatr va nccrnenapr bs punenpgre pbhyq nyjnlf or nggevohgrq gb tevrs. Like I said, it does strain credulity somewhat but I have encountered conceits much harder to swallow than that.

      Like

  4. I’ve only ever been able to get my hands of two of her books, this one and GREEN FOR DANGER. I liked both but I liked TOUR DE FORCE more. The deception worked on me.

    Like

  5. I read this recently and remember it fondly for the eureka moment I had eight chapters in, when I tumbled to the trick. I had another theory in mind at that point, but I wasn’t able to have one aspect of it agree with the known facts. And then the true solution came to me. I have less trouble accepting the conceit than others, it stretches credulity and yet under the singular circumstances of the story and the relationship (or lack thereof) between certain characters it might just be pulled off. Overall, punctuated by thickly laid on melodrama though it was, TDF succeeded in being an excellent example of a well clued fair play puzzle plot in a way I think her prior “Fog of Doubt” woefully failed to.

    Like

    • Yes, The Three-Cornered Halo. It is set in the same island. Inspector Cockrill is not there, but his sister Harriet and Cecil are.

      Like

  6. If I can ever get my %^#$ together, I’m going to re-read Brand from the beginning. This is perhaps my favorite. I don’t care what Scott says about the improbability of the trick working; on this island with THESE people, it works. I was totally fooled by it, kicked myself in the head for not noticing that glaring early clue, and – best of all – felt a real emotional tug by the ending. (One gets that same tug at the end of Green for Danger.) I’ve pretty much forgotten Death of Jezebel except, I think, for the name of the killer, but I can only remember that it was clever, nothing more. Decades later, I might change my mind after a deeper read, but for now, I heartily concur with your praise for Tour de Force!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Definitely my favourite Brand. Totally taken in. I’ve just recently read ‘Death of Jezebel’ and although it’s very good I don’t know what all the fuss is about. One slight problem I have with Brand is that I don’t much like any of her characters in any of the books I’ve read.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.