• If you are citizen of an European Union member nation, you may not use this service unless you are at least 16 years old.

  • Stop wasting time looking for files and revisions. Connect your Gmail, DriveDropbox, and Slack accounts and in less than 2 minutes, Dokkio will automatically organize all your file attachments. Learn more and claim your free account.


Heads You Lose

Page history last edited by Pietro De Palma 4 years, 4 months ago

Brand, Christianna - Heads You Lose (1941)


Christianna Brand's mystery output seems paltry compared to, say, Agatha Christie (who may arguably have stayed too long at the fair after about 1960, judging from comments made on this forum); 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 stories were adapted for British TV and one was the subject of a full-length motion picture a couple of years ago; her mystery fiction was given brief attention in the mid-to-late 1940s, and then she was promptly forgotten. Only Green for Danger seems to have been given a proper treatment; William K. Everson and yours truly agree that this movie is THE classic detective film, with The Kennel Murder Case tying 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)



One individual who might not fully agree with Godfrey's statement about Brand's plots (at least in the instance of HEADS YOU LOSE) is John Pugmire who, in his survey article "More Locked Rooms and Improbable Crimes" on the Mystery*File website, writes: "I love Christianna Brand (Death of Jezebel is one of the most fiendishly clever impossible crimes ever written) but here (in HEADS YOU LOSE) she inexplicably withholds a vital piece of information from the reader, which spoils the book."




by Christianna Brand (1907-1988)

Bantam Books

Mass Market Paperback (1988)

Novel: 10 Chapters

167 Pages




Since this title is an entry in Bantam's "Murder Most British" series, the cover illustration shows what is at first glance an official Royal Seal inscribed with the partially readable phrase ELIZABETH II DEI GRATIA REGINA, an anachronism to be sure since Elizabeth wouldn't become Regina for another decade from the book's first publication. This error is obscured, however, by a perfect rendering of Francesca Hart, with that silly little hat perched on her head.



If they gave out Edgar Awards to blurbwriters, whoever wrote this one would deserve serious consideration:




"'I wouldn't be seen dead in a ditch in a hat like that!' These were

the last words* of mousy Grace Morland before she was found brutally

murdered behind Squire Stephen Pendock's gracious mansion, her body

in a ditch, her severed head obscenely garbed in Francesca Hart's new

feathered hat. Six people at Pigeonsford Cottage heard Grace Morland

utter those bitter, jealous words, including the dazzling Francesca

herself, her twin sister Venetia, and dashing Pendock, the Squire of

the Village, whose attention Grace had so desperately wanted, and who

only had eyes for Francesca, who cared for him not at all ..."




"Surely Grace's killer must have been one of the six denizens of

Pigeonsford. For too long passions in this hot-house atmosphere have

remained secret and unrequited. Now, it's up to Inspector Cockrill

of Scotland Yard to ensure that justice will out--and with it, long-

buried lusts and jealousies--before the ghastly executioner strikes



*Note: Grace's last words were more likely: "Take





--"You have to reach for the greatest of the Great Names (Agatha

Christie, John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen) to find Christianna

Brand's rivals in the subtleties of the trade."--Anthony Boucher, THE


--"Shoals of attractive red herrings--satisfactorily grisly, richly

emotional, with a smash climax."--SATURDAY REVIEW

--"Scary bits in this one!"--THE NEW YORKER

--"The ending will hang you in ropes!"--THE PHILADELPHIA RECORD

--"The plot technique of a Christie--a rare reminder of those noble

days of the '40s, the Golden Age of Detection."--James Sandoe, editor





Grace Morland: "a foolish woman," a "ridiculous old spinster" (page 8), head-over-heels in love with the squire of the village; but since when did it become a--if you will pardon the expression--capital offense to be thirty-eight and in love?




Stephen Pendock: He seems to have emerged from the pages of a Jane Austen novel--handsome, stalwart, impeccably mannered, kind, and considerate of everyone's feelings and a pillar of the community. People like that bear watching ....


Venetia Gold: Francesca's married sister; "Venetia was like her name, all Gold; a golden cobweb that looked as if it might, at any moment, to be blown away by the lightest breath of wind to some enchanted land where it really belonged." (page 3) Such is Grace Morland's impression of Venetia; but as delicate as she might seem, Venetia isn't so frail as to be unable to lift a rusty hatchet ....


Henry Gold: To Grace, he's "that dreadful little Jew." (page 3) "Henry Gold was a small, slim, ugly man, with a friendly, rather puck-like smile that lit up his face into eagerness and gave him a quite overwhelming charm." (page 7) But there's a lot going on behind those dark, mysterious eyes ....


James Nicholl: Phlegmatic James "... was nearly a head taller (than Henry Gold), with stooping shoulders and heavy-lidded, sleepy eyes, and a rather vacant look of the intellectual mind withdrawn from the teeming personal life without." (page 7) He loves Francesca, it's true; could that be why a faint grin appears on his face when he hears of Grace's demise? And he's in the Army, don't forget; could he be doing some commando practice with ladies' heads ....?


Lady Hart: The classic mother figure, "... an old lady whose tiny head looked like nothing so much as a pea perched upon a goodly cottage loaf." (page 7) But that tiny head could contain murderous thoughts ....


Francesca Hart: The centerpiece of our story; to Grace she represents everything that Grace can't have: "Francesca was only too free, TOO free, thought Grace darkly, and so very, so painfully pretty" (page 3); "... she looked like a tropical flower blooming in this English garden," (page 4), while poor Grace, in a moment of brutal honesty, compares herself to "a bluebell that looked all right in a wood, but faded and drooped when you came up to it." (page 4) Could the fact that Grace regards Fran as her rival for the squire's affections have anything to do with her losing her head ....?


Pippi le May: Whenever Pippi is around, everybody does a slow burn--including Bunsen, the butler: "She was a tiny creature with a stringy little body and small, expressive brown hair .... There was an air of chic about her, but all the washing in the world could not make her look quite clean. She was a not unsuccessful character actress making her determined way upon the West End stage. And she was Grace Morland's cousin." (page 31) She and her husband have at long last agreed to a divorce; but that decision looks less and less attractive to her now that hubby has inherited a "little bit of money ... several hundred thousand pounds." (page 115) That could give either Pippi or her husband--or both--several hundred thousand reasons to commit murder ....


Trotty: Maid to Grace and Pippi, "... a frail old woman with her crippled legs and painful, dragging walk ..." (page 43); Trotty was "... faithful, devoted, grateful and increasingly crotchety. She was a downright, humorous, ginger-haired little woman, her splendid muscle all run to firm white fat." (page 40) But there's something else you need to know about Trotty: Despite her infirmities, she was once an excellent trapeze artist, and since these murders do require physical dexterity ....




Bunsen: The inevitable butler. "An ancient butler arrived with a loaded tray, walking as daintily as a cat upon his corn-tormented feet." (page 9) But don't let his feet fool you; he gets around quite a lot in this story. Fact is, he finds the body of the first victim (yes, there's more than one)--but who's to say, corns or no, that he didn't put it there ....?


Aziz: A sleek black dachshund who, according to family rumor, is a fifth columnist parachuted in by the Nazis. Aziz isn't likely to have dunnit, but no one really knows how resourceful dogs can be, n'est-ce pas?




Inspector Cockrill: "... 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 (a village) 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)



This, according to the bibliographies, was 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, we are told, she later became. Nonetheless, compared to some other GA writers, she reads like Shakespeare .... Chapter 6, the coroner's inquest, is a marvellous set piece .... It isn't revealing too much to say that Cockie doesn't really solve it; he lets the other characters eliminate false trails on their own. It's fun to watch indolent James Nicholl exerting himself trying to prove the guilt of another character; what's his motivation, to protect Fran 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 the murderer's .... The story is set not long after the Dunkirk evacuation, but the war is alluded to only in several places .... Brand introduces an impossible crime, but doesn't do much with it; the impossibility is dismissed in one sentence .... All the characters, major and minor, are well imagined and memorable: the coroner, the verger, Bunsen's sister, and so forth .... "The hat. Everything seemed to turn upon the hat." (page 26) .... One character remarks: "It's only because we're US that we blind ourselves to the facts." (page 47) .... The presence of Aziz in the story explains the book's dedication (and note the order): "To Dumptsi, my dachshund; and to Mr. and Mrs. Rhys Rees of Ystalyfera, for all their kindness to him" .... The character list page has an error, listing Lady Hart as one of her own granddaughters; corrected it should read as follows:




PENDOCK, the Squire of the Village, and his guests




VENETIA GOLD, her granddaughters


HENRY GOLD, Venetia's husband


BUNSEN, the butler

GRACE MORLAND, a foolish woman

PIPPI LE MAY, her cousin

TROTTY, their maid


Among these ten very ordinary

people were found two

victims and a murderer.




Brand's own favourite. Good storytelling, interesting and ambivalent characters, gruesome crimes. Multiple solutions tend to confuse plot development. Obvious murderer (it could be no one else). Motive is so absurd that author had to make the criminal turn out to be insane, but in an absurd way (and epileptic is considered "mad" and is supposed to have repeatedly become a throat-slashing maniac during fits). Ambiguous depiction of Jewish character that turns out to be the most intelligent character in the book. Black dog called Esmiss Esmoore likely and somewhat reasonably to infuriate some readers.


Henrique Valle


See also http://apenguinaweek.blogspot.com.au/2012/02/penguin-no-779-heads-you-lose-by.html

See also:http://deathcanread.blogspot.it/2014/09/christianna-brand-heads-you-lose-1941.html 

Comments (0)

You don't have permission to comment on this page.