I have a vivid recollection of my first encounter with Christianna Brand's Heads You Lose. As a fourteen year old schoolboy, I raced to the local library one Saturday morning in September and borrowed it (in a reprint edition introduced by Michael Gilbert) before nipping back home and settling down to watch my favourite cricket team play their first cup final on television. Alas, my heroes were thrashed, and I was in a very grumpy mood for the rest of that weekend.
My humour wasn't improved by the fact that I felt Brand's novel didn't play fair with me as a reader. I'd greatly admired Green for Danger, but I felt that this village mystery was a let-down. I'm afraid that I'll forever associate it with a day when my juvenile dreams were dashed! However, I was encouraged to give it another go by a thought-provoking discussion of the story in Samantha Walton's Guilty but Insane, which deals with the treatment of psychological disturbance in Golden Age fiction.
On a second reading, my revised conclusion is that the book is a curate's egg. Brand skates over thin ice more cleverly than I appreciated in my youth. There's a pleasing false solution, but this was only her second novel, and it's well short of her best. It introduced her main character Inspector Cockrill, aka "Cockie", but I must admit I've never found him quite as engaging as do some fans. The book was published in 1942, and one of the characters, who is Jewish, is presented in sympathetic fashion - yet he still has to put up with a good deal of casual antisemitism before the story reaches its end.
On the plus side, there's a nice map and a neatly contrived "closed circle" of suspects. Samantha Walton's discussion has given me greater insight into Brand's handling of homicidal psychology, and is an uncommon example of an academic study which actually enhances the pleasure of reading Golden Age fiction. I still don't think Heads You Lose is really a fair play mystery, but I also think I judged it too harshly on first reading. As for that cricket match, well the scars run deep, but back then, I never dreamed that one day I'd become friendly with my team's opening batsman, Peter Gibbs, and that we'd go to a Society of Authors meeting together. Peter told me that they just froze on the big occasion. Oh well, even heroes are human...
I agree with you. It's a contrived, tense and suffocating plot, more a psychological detective story than a deductive one. I love the macabre, the grim ending, less the riddle and the way it is resolved. Brand is at her best in "Death of Jezebel", "Green for Danger" and "London Particular".
P.S. has the original version a map? Because in the italian one there isn't.
It is the weakest of her murder stories I think, but I like her books so much, and there are relatively few of them, so I wouldn't be without even this one!
The Samantha Walton book is marvellous isn't it? Of great interest to any GA fan I think... I told the author (on social media) that her publishers should have marketed it to the fans.
There is a map in the first edition, yes.
Well said, Moira!
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