Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Where There's a Will

That's one small step for [a] man
Neil Armstrong

Last year, I reviewed the not very memorable Moord in de Ridderzaal by Theo Joekes, a novel I had picked up in the town's free library, where you can exchange novels and books for free: you can simply leave a book you'd like someone else to read behind, and readers can take a book with them for free. Moord in de Ridderzaal by the way, was swiftly returned.

A loooooong while back (this review was pushed back a lot), I was scanning titles again in the free library, when my eyes fell on a familiar name. At least, the name of the author was familiar to me: the Dutch title of the book didn't immediately ring a bell. For I have read a couple of Christianna Brand novels already, and most of them were excellent mystery stories, though the Dutch title Het geheim van de voetstappen ("The Secret of the Footsteps") didn't sound familiar to me. A look inside however told me this was the Dutch translation of Suddenly At His Residence (1947), a book I had heard about, but hadn't read yet, so the book was promptly pulled out from the shelf. Sir Richard Marsh, an eccentric elderly man, has a family gathering at his stately manor Swanswater every year in memory of his late first wife Serafita, despite being his second wife still being alive and well. Due to the unfortunate deaths of his own children during the war, only his four grandchildren attend to this gathering (three grandchildren of Serafita, one of his second wife Bella). Peta (daughter of the oldest son) is the favorite of Richard, but he doesn't really understand her modern ways. Philip (son of second son) is married with Ellen and they have a child, but he has fallen in love with Claire (daughter of third son), and wishes to divorce Ellen. Edward (grandson of Bella) is neurotic and spoiled, and is prone to 'space out', though even he himself doesn't quite know whether he's playing the role, or actually neurotic. Richard has always felt a generational gap between him and his grandchildren, but when he learns of the affair of Philip and Claire, and how everyone thinks so lightly of everything, he decides to disown the grandchildren, leaving everything to his second wife Bella (and Edward). As always on Serafita's day, he retreats to her beloved garden house to spend the night there, and this year, he decides to use his time there to alter his will. The following morning however, the old man is discovered dead in the garden house, and not only has his new will disappeared, it also seems his death was foul play. Inspector Cockrill, as an old acquaintance of the family is asked to investigate the matter, and Cockrill, and the family members soon realize that the crux of the case revolves around the one path leading to the garden house (rose bushes block any other way): fresh sand had been laid on the path after Sir Richard had retreated in the garden house, but the only footprints left on the path were of the people who discovered the body, so when had the murderer visited the man?

I kinda like this cover art by the way, it's in a style you don't often see.

Anyway, Suddenly At His Residence is most definitely A Mystery Story By Brand. Well, I haven't read that much Christianna Brand to be completely honest, but if there's one thing that all the novels I have read have in common, it's that everyone in her novels is very eager to offer false solutions, reasonable hypotheses and well-considered suspicions on everyone else. Seriously, everyone in her novels will at one point or another accuse another character of having committed the deed, and it's never just an accusation, no, it's always an accusation that's quite plausible! Suddenly At His Residence basically has two seemingly impossible situations. The murder of Sir Richard is the main problem of course, and the numerous false solutions can be roughly split in two variations:  either the murderer went to the garden house before the fresh sand was laid on the path, or after. The latter variation is of course a familiar trope in mystery fiction, often recognized as the 'footsteps in the snow' trope. If the murderer did go after the sand had been laid, how did they enter and leave without leaving footsteps? On the other hand, it can also be assumed the murderer went before the sand was laid, but here we are still confronted with several impossibilities, as the people known to have gone to the garden house at that time were for example in company of other witnesses, or seen not to carry anything with them with which they could've commited the murder.

This split in two kinds of impossibilities is quite interesting, as it really keeps the reader on their toes, as they are being "forced" to choose between one of these paths (before or after), and even then, they still have to figure out how it was exactly done. And Brand makes sure to toy around with the reader, as she'll name quite a few possibilities the reader will also consider, but yeah, it's very likely you're on the wrong track if one of the characters already voices your ideas with the same reasoning with still more than seventy pages left. There is a second death later in the book, and while that is an impossible situation though, with no footsteps left in the dust, this one is easier to guess and not directly connected to the first murder in terms of method (they are two distinctly different situations).

When I finally arrived at the part where the solution to Sir Richard's death is explained however, I realized I had already heard of this solution before. Mind you, I didn't realize this until after it had been revealed, and I hadn't even thought of this solution myself while I was reading the novel, so it didn't really influence my reading experience, but I believe it's one that's reasonably famous for this type of problem. The solution works well here, even if the clewing is a bit sparse, though I did have the feeling it felt a bit arbitrary due to all the false solutions preceding the final solution. That is to say, the previous false solutions were all discarded for several reasons, but never did you really feel a connection between those false solutions. They were just treated as false, but crossing them off your list didn't mean it'd get you closer to the final solution. Earlier this year, I read Mitsuda Shinzou's Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono, which had a lot of false solutions too, but there the false solutions were all actually necessary steps, as elements from each false solution would prove to be important to mark the road to the true solution. In comparison, all the false solutions in Suddenly At His Residence felt as discrete instances, with no real consequences to the final solution. It's a completely different approach to the false solutions device, but at the end of Suddenly At His Residence, you feel like the novel could also have ended in the first few pages had Cockrill simply stumbled upon that solution first, as the other hypotheses had nothing to do with the real solution anyway.

Not that I think Suddenly At His Residence is a bad mystery novel though. Quite the contrary, it's a very amusing, and deep mystery novel that isn't afraid to be a real detective story, focusing on logical reasoning by offering so many plausible solutions to the problem, but still whipping up a surprise at the end, and a good example of how a Brand-brand mystery novel overall. And I am grateful that someone actually left a copy of the book in the free library. But the book did get me thinking about what I like about false solutions in mystery novels and what their function should be, and in that sense, I do have to say Suddenly At His Residence is, well, not disappointing perhaps, but I did make me long for a Brand where the false solution device is used in a more constructive way for her mystery plots. And to end this story: this book was returned to the free library, so someone else may also enjoy Brand!


  1. Hey, I read the exact same edition as you did and still have the book somewhere on my shelves or stuffed in a box.

    Het Spectrum/Prisma detectives usually either had good or godawful cover-art. Ellery Queen is a good example. I loved the white cover-series, but the one with the dripping blood-line or those obvious 1960s covers tended to look very cheap and garish.

    Anyway, your opinion on Suddenly At His Residence is surprisingly close to the general consensus from the 2000s. During that time, the book was seen as a second-tier Brand novel and representative of her best work, but lately, it has been looked upon much more favorably.

    1. Oh yeah, those white EQs with the illustrations were definitely more attractive than the dripping blood + photograph covers. I think I have more of the latter though :/

      Never found another Brand in the neighborhood free library again though :(