A review of Death of Jezebel by Christianna Barand – 230303
There is so much to talk about Death of Jezebel, the fourth in Brand’s Inspector Cockrill series, originally published in 1948 and now reissued as part of the inestimable British Library Crime Classics series, that a simple 700 or so word review cannot possibly do the book justice. It is a compelling read, a complex plot involving impossible murders in a variation of a locked room, misdirection galore, and two detectives trying to get the better of each other.
Brand takes the unusual step right at the outset of listing her principal characters, noting that three will receive death threats and one will be the murderer. She then, in a prologue, expounds the casus belli, the suicide out in Malaya of Johnny Wise, driven to distraction when he finds his fiancé, the flighty Perpetua Kirk, in a compromising position, have been intoxicated and set up by Isabel Drew and Earl Anderson. The three implicated in Johnny’s suicide each receive death threats and, assuming that the prospective murderer did not send one to themselves, the culprit, if there are any murders, can only be one of Edgar Port aka Sugar-Daddy, Brian Bryan from Sumatra, Susan Betchley aka Bitchley, and George Exmouth.
The action takes place at the Elysian Hall, venue for the Homes for Heroes Exhibition, the centre piece of which is a pageant, masterminded by Port and in which all seven protagonists are involved. The set is a castle tower and a courtyard. The rear to the stage is locked during the performance and everything that happens at the front is witnessed by the audience which includes Inspecter Cockrill, up to London from Kent ostensibly for a conference but who has been contacted by a frightened Perpetua.
The first death in the book is that of Isabel, who falls out of the tower having been strangled. I like a good fenestration. It seems impossible to see who murdered her, never mind how it was achieved. To add to the sense of mystery both Earl and Perpetua are missing, Perpetua found later by Brian Bryan locked in an outer room, and Earl later found to have been murdered too, when his head is delivered to the unfortunate Perpetua in a parcel.
Elysian Hall is not on Cockrill’s patch and the lead investigator is Inspector Charlesworth of the Yard, another of Brand’s series detectives. The two are chalk and cheese and while Charlesworth magnanimously allows Cockrill to lend a hand, there is an undercurrent of faint animosity between the two, each vying to prove that their methodology, Charlesworth representing the new school and Cockrill the old, is superior and the former never letting the latter forget that he made a mess of an earlier case. This adds some humour to the investigation and it is gratifying to see that Cockrill comes through with flying colours, even if he seemed to have made a potentially fatal error at the end.
Much of the investigation centres, naturally, upon how Isabel was defenestrated and theories are banded backwards and forwards, some more convincing than others and each, for a moment at least, shining guilt on one of the four suspects. At times it appears that they might have acted in collusion and at one point all four decide to confess separately to both murders. With such a small suspect list it is to Brand’s credit that she can keep the dramatic tension going for so long.
I did work out the culprit, thanks to a clever bit of wordplay, but it took me much longer than it normally does to get to the whodunit. As to the howdunit, even having reread the relevant passages several times, I am not convinced that there would have been enough time for the culprit to pull off Isabel’s murder in the way described, but that is a mere quibble.
The Far East campaign has often been described as the forgotten theatre of war and Brand’s text brings home the horrors of the Japanese invasion, wiping out families, records and causing untold psychological horrors. Pont’s wife is in a home after a nervous breakdown suffered as a result of the traumas of the invasion and the protagonists are each in their own way scarred by their experiences there, not just by the suicide of Wise. This is just another fascinating insight in a fabulous book.
For me, it had just the right mix of absurdity, clever plotting, and complex mystery. My only serious criticism is that her characterisation is not strong, with perhaps only Cockrill coming alive on the page. Still, you cannot have everything.