Death of Jezabel by Christianna Brand – Review
By Sandra Callard
Here is another one from the wonderful selection of old books republished by the British Library in their Crime Classics section, and this one has the most fascinatingly tangled mass of clues that will test the ingenuity of any reader.
Published originally in 1949, this book falls towards the end of the hallowed Golden Age of Crime of the twenties and thirties, and just sneaks into the forties with a glorious salute to the era. Death of Jezabel is set in post war London as the inhabitants look forward to seeing an exhibition in their hallowed Elysian Hall. The show has been put together by the so-called elite of the area and the highlight of the performance will be a pageant of fully dressed knights on horseback and in full armour, representing the Heroes of England.
Naturally the pageant is interrupted by a murder as the bossy and unpopular organiser of the performance is seen hurtling down from the high tower as she opens the show. The death is investigated, not by one, but by two detectives, one a young but willing rookie, the newly promoted Inspector Charlesworth, and the other the almost worn-out but very experienced sleuth of some repute, Inspector Cockrill. The banter between the two is clever and funny as wisdom clashes with enthusiasm, and the author has created an interesting and effective twosome.
The clues and the theories come thick and fast and most of them do sound remarkably apt, albeit somewhat laborious, but there is always someone on hand to pick pieces in any possible solution and put forward another hypothesis. Right to the very end the tension hovers as the reader is not sure whether the latest accepted prognosis is the correct one or is just another red herring.
I love the descriptive parts of the book as the uniforms of the knights are beautifully described, some of them with a lovely humour – I suppose not everybody can look good in armour. You can see the people, their actions, their faces, in a photographic way, and the years fall away as you read.
All readers of murder novels are armchair detectives. It cannot be avoided and is one of the great pleasures of the genre, and the opportunities for testing yourself as you read is very pleasurable, although your conclusions will be mostly wrong. In fact the clues are so complicated, that you may be reduced to filling a notebook, as I attempted to do, quite badly, in order to track down the murderer.
But this book is not just for amusement. Even at this distance in time the sights, sounds and sensations of the era are still very vivid. The characters’ reactions, how people assess each other and the very simple things such as food, speech and clothing can wing the book vividly into the correct era, and when you have an inkling of these things, the written characters become flesh and blood.
Death of Jezabel is a book of its time, naturally, but is a beautifully written record of that era’s people and their thoughts, ideas and aspirations but also shows that good writing and clever humour is timeless.
‘Death of Jezabel’ by Christianna Brand is published by the British Library, £9.99 paperback