I first read Christianna Brand's Cat and Mouse a very long time ago - probably in the early 80s. I knew Julian Symons had extolled the book in Bloody Murder as her best (I believe he was also a fan of a later novel, The Rose in Darkness) but I confess I was underwhelmed. Having forgotten pretty much everything about the story except for the fact that it's set in Wales, I've had another go. And, as sometimes happens, my judgment this time was considerably more favourable.
I've always been a fan of Brand, but at the same time I've had reservations about some aspects of her characterisation. She does set out, clearly, to create people who are much more than mere ciphers, and that is admirable. The snag, at least for me, is that her characters are often highly-strung and overwrought. Given the nightmare of being involved in a murder case, that's fair enough up to a point, but at times I think Brand overdoes the hysterics so that the angst becomes a bit irritating. That said, I suspect this is a minority opinion, at least among Golden Age fans.
Cat and Mouse is unusual in her repertoire in that it sets out very deliberately to conjure up melodrama. There is an entertaining dedication to 'Mary Lewis' (this was Brand's married name!) which references Northanger Abbey, and this sets the context for the story. What we have here is an overt homage to Austen's splendid novel (I read it as a schoolboy and loved it; time for a re-read) in terms of the melodrama.
The catalyst for the mystery (which Brand took from a real life incident) is a set of letters received by a journalist on a magazine by a woman who calls herself Amista. It seems that Amista has married a glamorous chap called Carlyon and the journalist, while in Wales, attempts to look up the happy couple. But there is no sign of Amista and it is soon clear that Something Is Up. What follows is a twisty puzzle that is rather unorthodox and, despite those overwrought bits, intriguing and enjoyable.
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