book review

The Rose in Darkness

Fellers were money for jam, thought Sari, compared with trying to enchant small girls. Really one felt sorry for poor exhausted paedophiles…

That’s just one of the many lines in Christianna Brand’s 1979 novel The Rose in Darkness that sent me into a fit of cackling delirium. Brand who can nail a characterization with the most random detail. Brand whose trap doors of ever-widening guilt push her endings beyond quadruple switcheroos into sanity-questioning revelations that are somehow the exact solution hinted at all along. Brand who at the age of 72 created this stream-of-consciousness masterpiece of murder and madness.

There is a hint of playfulness in all of her work. It contrasts beautifully with the grand gut punches she leaves us with. Among these nine people were found a victim and a murderer. There is no collusion as to this murder. That’s as much a salvo as a wink. We follow former actress (and all-around narcissist) Sari Morne as she evades the unseen threat from The Followers, members of the mysterious Red Mafia trying to recover a priceless ring. Not that any of her Eight Best Friends (aka the suspects) believe any of that nonsense.

During a London-Particular-style opening chapter, she flees from her pursuers only to be stopped by a falling tree. On the other side, the same make of car coming the other way. With wide-brimmed hats pulled down, she and the man exchange cars, agreeing to meet up later and then…well then a body shows up in an expected place that becomes an unexpected place rather quickly. Lots of things turn unexpected quickly.

Look at the late scene with the daughter trying to pull her daddy away as he fights for his life with Inspector Charlesworth (wrenching!), the constant rug pulls leaving you staying awake at night to read one more chapter to get that feeling again, and the verbal particulars, seemingly built from the characters actually living their lives off the page.

Although she’s my favorite author, I had resisted reading TRiD. The word was that after Tour De Force, she quit writing the genre she did better than anyone else. The wildly successful Nurse Matilda books, some biographies/historical fiction, and even a juvenile mystery called Welcome to Danger—I avoided them all, fearing horrible disappointment. Death In High Heels, Green For Danger, Suddenly At His Residence, Death of Jezebel, London Particular, and Tour De Force (Rewrite the ending of Heads You Lose and I’d include it) are the best times I’ve had reading murder mysteries. I’m so happy to add this one to the list.

I was turned onto this book by The Green Capsule. The review there is excellent and you should read it. JJ over at theinvisibleevent is going to review it in a couple days. Love it or hate it, I’m sure he’ll have more interesting things to say about it than I. However, if my opinion is worth anything, you should find this and read it at your earliest convenience.

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5 thoughts on “The Rose in Darkness”

  1. I’m truly glad that you enjoyed this. It’s one of those experiences that that you just want to share with others. Man, those last six paragraphs, the third to last in particular. I get goosebumps even now as I type this. It’s not like this is a twist for the ages, or a brilliant solution, but there’s something about those final few paragraphs that still send a chill down the spine.

    The seeming common consensus that Brand’s mystery career was over after Tour de Force is clearly misguided, nor are the books that you listed her only great output. If you haven’t yet, check out Cat and Mouse and A Ring of Roses, in that order. They aren’t quite at this level, but they’re damn good.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As you say, my thoughts on this are forthcoming, but I do agree that Brand continues to nail the characters with the simplest and lightest of touches. She’s unquestionably in the top tier of authors for brevity and clarity in that regard, and it’s masterfully deployed here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She eschews the traditional set-up of a scene (establish the setting, narrate the state of mind, proceed with dialogue dramatics) opting for a more immersive experience. It’s a wonderful way to create doubt with even the most simple situations. Time and again I found myself thinking of the horrible mess I would’ve made of this had I written it.
      Perhaps that refusal to separate narrative thrust from character identity rather than constructing the scheme from a (shall we say) architectural standpoint can be frustrating. For me, it’s a wonderful blend of psychology and mystery. There’s never a moment when the nature of the characters isn’t driving the mystery. She gets away with stuff I would never accept from another author because of that tactic.

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