Tour De Force by Christianna Brand, first published in 1955, is today a Forgotten Book, perhaps because, after it appeared, the author turned away from the genre for a number of years. But many connoisseurs think highly of it.
The novel features Brand’s most regular detective, Inspector Cockrill, and also a character who appeared in an earlier mystery (and therefore seems by definition to be an unlikely killer) but the setting is unusual – a fictitious island off the Italian coast. Cockrill is part of a tour party, and Brand clearly enjoyed writing about the island, as she set a subsequent book there as well.
A member of the tour party is found dead. She has been stabbed to death with a dagger, and there is a suggestion that she may have liked to indulge in blackmail. She was also at the centre of some romantic convolutions, involving one of the suspects, Leo Rodd. Rodd is a one-armed musician who appears highly attractive to women, although he was so unpleasant that I struggled to figure out why any of them would bother with him. A map is supplied in the best Golden Age tradition.
A fairly obvious solution to the murder mystery is put forward, but then Brand supplies a clever and unexpected (at least by me) twist – although it depends on something so unlikely that I didn’t find it easy to suspend belief. There are various pleasing features in the book, not least the setting, but I’m afraid that Brand’s novels seem to me to suffer from a recurrent weakness. There is always a closed circle of suspects, which is fine, but those suspects always seem to succumb before long to “rising hysteria” and their highly-strung behaviour and chit-chat rather gets on my nerves. So it was here.
However, Brand’s skill with plot was formidable. She isn’t too far behind Christie and Berkeley in that respect and I also gather that in person she was truly charismatic. To my mind, her short stories tend to be more satisfying than her novels, because they are punchier and the characters in them don’t have time to grate on the reader. One of these days I will say more about her short stories, but for now I’ll rank Tour De Force as well-constructed, but a long way short of a masterpiece.