A Review by MIKE TOONEY:

CHRISTIANNA BRAND – Heads You Lose. John Lane/The Bodley Head, UK, hc, 1941. US hardcover: Dodd Mead, 1942. Hardcover reprint: Ian Henry (UK), 1981. Paperback reprints include: Penguin (UK), several printings, 1950s; Bantam, June 1988 (shown).


    Christianna Brand’s mystery output seems paltry compared to, say, Agatha Christie.

    In the 1950s, Brand produced progressively less in the crime fiction field, focusing more on her children’s writing. According to the IMDb, a handful of her children’s stories were adapted for British TV and one was the subject of a full-length motion picture a few years ago.

    Film makers gave her mystery fiction brief attention in the mid-to-late 1940s, and then she was promptly forgotten. Only Green for Danger (1946), based on her 1944 novel, seems to have been given a proper treatment. Film critic William K. Everson and yours truly agree that this movie is THE classic detective film, with The Kennel Murder Case vying with it for first place.

    Thomas Godfrey, in his English Country House Murders (1989), characterizes our author and her writing thus: “Christianna Brand (Mary Christianna Milne Lewis), the last of the grandes dames of traditional English writing, was, like Josephine Tey, a connoisseur’s writer. Her plots are intelligently premeditated, rich in atmosphere, keenly observed, and subtly set forth.” (page 423)

    Heads You Lose memorably introduces her series sleuth, Inspector Cockrill, like this:

    “[He] was a little brown man who seemed much older than he actually was, with deep-set eyes beneath a fine broad brow, an aquiline nose and a mop of fluffy white hair fringing a magnificent head. He wore his soft felt hat set sideways, as though he would at any moment break out into an amateur rendering of ‘Napoleon’s Farewell to his Troops’; and he was known to Torrington and in all its surrounding villages as Cockie. He was widely advertised as having a heart of gold beneath his irascible exterior; but there were those who said bitterly that the heart was so infinitesimal and you had to dig so deep down to get to it, that it was hardly worth the trouble. The fingers of his right hand were so stained with nicotine as to appear to be tipped with wood.” (page 22)

    Heads You Lose was, according to the bibliographies, Christianna Brand’s second book; and there are some rough places in the narrative that seem to show she isn’t quite as accomplished as she would later become. Nonetheless, compared to some other Golden Age writers of the same period, she often reads like Shakespeare.

    Chapter 6, the coroner’s inquest, is a marvelous set piece filled with low comedy and not a little misdirection.

    It isn’t revealing too much to say that Inspector Cockrill doesn’t really solve this case; he lets the other characters eliminate false trails on their own. It’s fun to watch one indolent character exerting himself trying to prove the guilt of another character — but what’s his motivation, to protect a woman or to shift suspicion from himself?

    Cockie also spends a large part of the first half of the book off-stage and gradually assumes a greater presence later; also, we are allowed into his thoughts only intermittently — in fact we spend much of the book inside various other characters’ minds, including, believe it or not, the murderer’s (but without being conscious of it).

    The story has a historical setting, a cosy English village not long after the Dunkirk evacuation, but the war is alluded to only in several places and never intrudes much into the narrative.

    It’s annoying when Brand introduces an impossible crime but doesn’t do much with it — the impossibility is later dismissed in one sentence. But all the characters, major and minor, are well imagined.

    Once she had hit her stride, Christianna Brand could play “The Grandest Game” with the best of them. Heads You Lose shows her warming up for her later, more solidly plotted novels in which she could often out-Christie Christie.