Heads You Lose by Christianna Brand

Book Details

Originally published in 1941
Inspector Cockrill #1
Followed by Green for Danger

The Blurb

As war rages in Europe, the citizens of London flee to the country. At Pigeonsford, a group of guests plays cards, drinks tea, and acts polite—but Grace Morland knows the strong emotions that lurk beneath the placid social surface. She’s painfully in love with Stephen Pendock, the squire of Pigeonsford, but Pendock’s smitten with young beauty Francesca Hart.

One afternoon, Fran debuts a new hat, and Grace’s jealousy gets the better of her. She exclaims, “I wouldn’t be seen dead in a ditch in a thing like that!” She will soon be proven wrong. Grace is found dead with the hat on her head—and her head removed from her neck. To the scene comes the incomparable Inspector Cockrill, who finds that far more than petty jealousy lies beneath this hideous murder.  

The Verdict

The murders are memorable and I appreciated the direct storytelling but the ending felt a little underwhelming.

“There a woman lying in the garden, Pen, down by the drive. She – I – she seems to be wearing Fran’s hat – Fran’s new little hat…”

My Thoughts

Recently I contributed to an episode of the In GAD We Trust podcast where bloggers were asked which authors they most want to see back in print. Listening back to the episode recently reminded me that while I own several of her novels, my experience with her writing boils down to one or two short stories. Clearly this was something I needed to remedy!

Heads You Lose was Brand’s second detective novel and the first to feature Inspector Cockrill, one of her series detectives. The book begins some months after the bound and decapitated body of a young woman had been found in the woods near Stephen Pendock’s house. No culprit for that murder was ever found and life appears to have got back to normal with Pendock entertaining guests at his home.

During the night Pendock is woken by Lady Hart who tells him that a woman has been seen in a ditch in his garden and she appears to be wearing a hat that her granddaughter Francesca had shown off earlier that day. That hat had been the subject of a barbed remark from Grace Morland who said that she would not be seen dead in a ditch in such a hat yet when Pendock investigates the body he lifts it to find Grace’s severed head staring back at him.

Inspector Cockrill, who had known Grace and briefly been the subject of her affection, is called in to investigate the case. Though this is quite a short novel (my ebook copy was 220 pages), it is remarkable just how effectively Brand establishes this character and sketches out his personality. In just a couple of paragraphs we not only get a sense of his figure but also his life story and reputation. I think that it helps that he is familiar to several of the other characters, allowing us to get to know him through their interactions rather than simply presenting him as an outsider.

I liked Cockrill a lot as a sleuth though and appreciated his somewhat irascable manner when dealing with others. He is not presented as a superhuman but rather as a dedicated and thorough detective carefully following his leads to compile a complete picture of the crime.

Decapitation is not a particularly common crime for this period but while the horror of the idea is described though Brand doesn’t go into graphic detail about what the injuries look like. It definitely helps these murders to stand out though and while I think the brutality of those crimes is not really explored as thoroughly as it perhaps would have been a few decades later, there was more than enough to the puzzle to keep me occupied.

Among the elements that Brand includes are some threatening telephone calls to the Police, a lack of footprints in the snow around a body, a curious difference between the murders and false solutions. Those elements, coupled with the short page count, mean that the story chugs along at a good pace. Technically the virgin snow would constitute an impossibility though I would stress that it isn’t really a focus of the story.

One of the things that I also enjoyed was that prior to the book even beginning Brand includes a statement at the bottom of her list of characters that two of them would be murdered and one would be the killer. While I no doubt would have anticipated secondary murders, knowing for sure that a further death would occur for sure only heightened my anticipation for that happening and left me incredibly curious who that second victim would turn out to be.

As much as I enjoyed the build-up to the final reveal, I shared that same feeling of disappointment in the ending that several other bloggers reported. The explanation of what was done certainly makes sense but it feels more conventional than the developments that precede it and so I think I expected something a little more complex than the answers we are given.

Before finishing up this post though I probably ought to address another aspect of the book that often features in reviews of this title – the antisemtitic comments made towards one of the characters. These comments are frequent and make for pretty uncomfortable reading, in part because Brand offers no explicit commentary on them for much of the text. As such it can seem like she is condoning those attitudes or considers them a character trait. I don’t think that was the intention – I read the final chapter as attempting to play against those negative stereotypes but even with that in mind, I don’t think it works well and I can understand why some readers felt discomfort at the handling of those elements here.

Though I had some issues with aspects of the book, I did find much to admire in this novel and I certainly was left curious to try more of her work. I am pretty sure I will be doing so again soon so if you have any recommendations please feel free to share them below!

Second Opinions

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime noted that she prefers some other later works by Brand and notes similarities between this and Suddenly at his Residence.

Ben @ The Green Capsule was much more enthusiastic and lavishes particular praise on the sequence where the suspects attempt to recreate the problem of the lack of footprints in the snow. He also notes that the thing I loved about the characters list is a feature of Brand’s work more generally – good news for me!

6 thoughts on “Heads You Lose by Christianna Brand

  1. I’m glad to see you’ve gotten interested in Brand’s work. She really was talented, in my opinion. I recommend Green For Danger when you get the chance.

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  2. I didn’t realize that you hadn’t read any Christianna Brand novels, although that kind of sounds familiar now that I think about it. Which short stories did you read? The Gemminy Cricket Case (aka Murder Room) or Cyanide in the Sun? You have a lot to look forward to. I’d recommend some books, but really I recommend all of Brand’s core mystery work. These titles really will blow your mind.

    As for Heads You Lose, I think the first 90% of the novel is close in quality to the rest of Brand’s library, although it was her second mystery novel and she really hit her stride with her next work. What I loved about Heads You Lose was one of the revelations – I have to be discreet – where Brand reveals that the reader has made an assumption without realizing it. But yeah, the very final solution is junk, and fortunately Brand never had another like it.

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    1. So I read her chapter in the Crime on the Coast anthology from the Detection Club (she wrote the conclusion which I found a little confusing) and After the Event from The Long Arm of the Law which I loved.

      I will probably read Green for Danger next unless someone posts something that really makes me put something else above it. I quite liked Cockie as a sleuth…

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  3. Green For Danger would be a great one to read next. It’s solid, entertaining, and lacks the flaws of Heads You Lose’s conclusion. After you read it, be sure to check out the film (on youtube). Alastair Sim doesn’t remind me much of the literary Cockie, but his version is a fine comic creation nevertheless.

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