Suddenly at His Residence (1946) – Christianna Brand

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Sir Richard March “invites” his grandchildren back to his mansion Swanswater, where he lives with his second wife, Bella. At this time every year the family must gather to perform a memorial ritual on the anniversary of his first wife Serafita’s death. But this year, with bombs falling in London and Kent, and an affair in the offing between cousins, Sir Richard retreats to the lodge house for the night threatening to cut his grandchildren out of the will. The next morning, he is of course found dead – with no footprints in the newly sanded paths to show how the murderer could have reached him.

It’s a classic setup, but here Brand focuses on the family who have gathered here and are now all suspects, rather than on the investigation of the crime. Brand records the thoughts, feelings, and arguments of the central seven suspects, to the exclusion of anything else. The book is almost claustrophobic in its focus.

Even Inspector Cockrill is crushed out, ending up drawn very indistinctly and with his investigation sidelined. The family members themselves provide the bulk of the theorizing. Both crimes are intricate no-footprints impossible crimes, but where John Dickson Carr would try his hardest to make the crimes seem truly impossible (until the ending), here there are almost too many solutions (in fact, the crime is only impossible if you discard one solution from the start). The suspects prove to be brilliant at coming up with them, and use them as ammunition in their many arguments, as the atmosphere of suspicion becomes more and more hostile. The first impossible situation is closely interwoven with all the routine of the unusual memorial event – for example, the roses bred by Serafita are at the peak of their bloom, with the petals about to fall, and so they form a barrier proving that no-one went through the rosebeds. I’ve found that there might be practical problems with the solution that is eventually landed on, so it’s strange that the alternative solutions, which could be more plausible, are never fully ruled out. Come the end, it’s unclear how Cockrill arrived at his conclusions, since we never see the steps he took to get there.

Also pushed to the side are the peripheral characters, particularly the servant characters, who have their whole lives and opinions tied into the knot of the central family. It really gives an impression of quite vicious classism from Brand, since the working class characters are dismissed by our central gang and treated by the narrative as ignorant, conniving obstacles to be overcome. The gardener’s wife Mrs Brough gives a great speech about the family – and the police – scapegoating those “outside the family” as it’s more convenient. She then goes back to being as nasty and stupid as she is required to be for the plot.

This book felt like it must have been 80% dialogue. Of course, it’s Christianna Brand dialogue, so it’s fantastically well written, but it does become exhausting being trapped in a string of family arguments, and having to constantly recalibrate my view of the crimes. It is always fascinating to watch Brand reveal the inner thoughts of a character as they enter a conversation, and to watch them clash against someone whose thoughts we observed earlier. But after a while I began to forget where the characters were, and wonder what they were doing all day. The world around them faded into pure argument-space. We get brief glimpses of the characters’ daily lives at the start of the book, but once they come to Swanswater all action is put on hold. Aside from a few scenes, such as the inquest, the world outside Swanswater could be a white void. The house itself never really feels like a home – which is kind of the point, but further strengthens the claustrophobia. The sense of a mansion/mausoleum is strongly evoked, but lends the writing a cold quality which I found a little offputting.

Any warmth there is comes from the character writing, which as always with Brand, shows her characters in all their flawed glory, while being fair with showing their side of the story. I thought that Ellen and Bella came across particularly strongly. Bella’s speech about her hatred of Swanswater is spectacular, and the narration’s focus on the difference between Ellen’s inner turmoil and her sarcastic exterior is very compelling.
Edward is also well drawn, but he highlights what I find a frustrating approach from Brand when it comes to mental illness. He’s presented throughout the story as either faking symptoms of mental illness for attention, or actually “mad” and therefore dangerous. Neither of these options really treat the idea of mental illness with much respect, so while I found Edward sympathetic, what he represents is less enjoyable.

The book under its alternate US title.

While I am impressed as always by Brand’s writing and construction, I find this particular book less easy to sink into and enjoy than her other books. My defining memory of the book from my first read was the ending, which is dramatic in such a shocking and brazen way that I came away stunned. The reading experience up to that point is a bit of a letdown, but the audacity of the ending is still great to read. Ultimately, the characters fail to grab my sympathy in the way they do in other books, and there is no sense of life going on for them and the world around them, as there is in her best books. The impossible crimes are very impressive, with great use of unique and thematic features, rather than a simple locked door or clear expanse of snow. But the characters’ debates about the scenarios quickly become bogged down in detail and feel implausible. However, even less-brilliant Brand is still worth your time.

Other opinions:

Ah Sweet Mystery
Beneath the Stains of Time
In Search of the Classic Mystery
Clothes In Books
The Grandest Game in the World
The Green Capsule
The Case Files of Ho-Ling
The Invisible Event
Pretty Sinister

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