Death of Jezebel by Christianna Brand – A 1949 murder mystery classic republished in the British Library Crime Classics series

Death of Jezebel by Christiana Brand

This is a classic tale of murder in a dramatically different locked room setting – with only a small list of potential suspects. Yet Brand cleverly twists and turns this plot of mystery, revenge and so much more between her suspects in the most spectacular of circumstances all overseen by two detectives: the bright and keen Inspector Charlesworth and the older, slightly cynical Inspector Cockrill. There are threats of murder, alliances and mixed motives as well as the murder in the face of an audience transfixed by a pageant’s spectacle in this brilliantly written novel originally published in 1949, now made available in the British Library Crime Classics series. As Martin Edwards states in his Introduction to this reprinted novel, this book had gained almost legendary status for its sheer audacity and clever handling of a murder mystery, and I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

Set in post-war London, where people are eager for a glimpse of life beyond the mundanity of rationing, a grand exhibition of household and other goods is to have its climax in a pageant depicting knights on horses and a girl in a tower. The characters are listed in the front of the novel including “Johnny Wise, who died: and to avenge whose death two of the following also died – and one was a murderer.” The seven characters are listed, and all have a connection to the pageant, are mostly present on a stage when a young woman is thrown from the tower dead. Not that it is a complete surprise that a serious crime attends this event; there have been three death threats received in the lead up to the show, and Inspector Cockrill has chosen to be present rather than at a conference. He is still smarting from a recent failure in an crime solving operation in his own area; and it is with reluctance that the police officer in charge accepts his unofficial help, despite his closeness to one of the suspects.

Essentially the crime revolves around how a young woman, a deeply unpleasant individual with her eye on the main chance, meets her death on the top of a tower while all eyes are on the scene, dominated by a number of men dressed as medieval knights on real horses arranged beneath her.  Perhaps no potential murder suspect has adopted a more elaborate disguise than to be a knight in full armour alongside others. Not that all the suspects are on the stage; at least three are either backstage or watching the spectacle with dedicated interest. The build up to the murder involves all the high drama of the staging of the unusual event, the resulting investigation displays the complexities of relationships in the shadow of war, a young man’s death, an illicit attraction and the struggle to find the truth in the light of so many potential motives.

This is a book that I thought really revelled in all the potential combinations of motive and opportunity that were so well presented by the clever author. There were so many possibilities presented in detail, so many elements to consider to what seemed at first sight to be a straightforward very public murder. There are thriller like elements as one or two of the suspects’ particular vulnerabilities are examined, and some unexpected developments certainly surprised me. This is a murder mystery that goes beyond merely whodunnit  into how and why in unexpected ways. I certainly recommend it to all those who enjoy a complex mystery written in the classic style.