Monday, October 17, 2011
Monday Review: TOUR DE FORCE (1955) by Christianna Brand
Another vintage read by an author I was not at all familiar with. Though I'd seen and reviewed the terrific film based on her book, GREEN FOR DANGER, I'd never actually read any of Christianna Brand's work until this weekend. (Alastair Sim embodied her creation, Inspector Cockrill, so well, I envisioned him while reading TOUR DE FORCE.)
Thanks to John over at PRETTY SINISTER BOOKS for his wonderful review of Brand's book, I immediately took an interest, possibly influenced too, by the oh-so-clever title. The murderous tale concerns a group of tourists traveling abroad. TOUR DE FORCE - get it?
Inspector Cockrill (or Cockie, as he's called) is on holiday - one of those guided tour, all-in-one group things where the murder of a young woman, a member of the tour, turns his sojourn on the Mediterranean into a bus man's holiday.
The members of the tour are your typical lot:
Besides Inspector Cockrill, there is the grim-faced - though dashed attractive - one armed man, Leo Rudd (an ex-concert pianist) and his stalwart and patient wife, Helen. The colorful and vivacious author, Louvain Barker, who has her false eyelashed eyes on Leo. The very gay couturier Cecil Prout who claims the tour is inspiration for his next collection and is not above a bit of malicious gossip. (Well, perhaps more than a bit.) The quiet and retiring Vanda Lane, who has a habit of noticing things and is also an incredibly good diver. (She too has her eye on Leo Rudd.) The older, shier and even more retiring Miss Trapp who has come under the keen eye of their tour guide, the swarthy and unabashedly on-the-make, Mr. Fernando of Odyssey Tours.
I classify TOUR DE FORCE as a very intime mystery, taking place as it does among a specific number of people with a specific number of motives. It's really like a country house murder mystery except it takes place in a small principality on the Mediterranean coast - where the language is a quirky and incomprehensible mixture of Italian, Spanish and local dialect - run by a hereditary ruler whose word is law.
The cops swagger about (caped and strangely barefoot) not caring who the killer actually is, just wanting the case solved so they can continue with their lucrative smuggling sideline. The place reminded me of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. At one point, even Cockie is thrown in jail as the likely killer. Luckily, the doors remain unlocked, and Cockie just strolls out and goes back to the hotel.
The actual crime is thus: One of the tour members, Vanda Lane, is found stabbed to death in her room, on an afternoon when everyone is inconsiderate enough to have an alibi. Alibis which are collaborated by none other than Inspector Cockrill himself. Cockie spent the afternoon of the murder perched on a terrace, comfortably ensconced in a deck chair, overlooking the beach where the rest of the tour group was arranged in various spots on the sand or in the water. One of the group, the author, Louvain Barker, was even inconsiderate enough to remain sleeping, practically at Cockie's feet during the whole afternoon.
The author is considerate enough to include a little map of the area so we can see just how impossible the crime actually is. It's a 'locked room' sort of mystery puzzle without an actual locked room.
Of course, it turns out that the victim appeared to have had an interesting sideline: blackmail. Possibly just emotional blackmail, but blackmail just the same. And of course, as usual, those in the tour group have their own secrets which they would prefer be kept hidden from the glare of the spotlight.
Before the book is over and the final denouement (which, as John said, is a 'stunner') takes place, suspicion has undone the small group. Various solutions to the crime are put forth and when a second person is attacked, the motivation grows clearer and the tour members (including Inspector Cockrill) work out how each of them could have committed the crime. In truth, the police don't care who did it, they just want someone they can hang so the island's hotels won't have any more tourist cancellations.
Christianna Brand is such an intelligent and crafty writer, she slips the wool (or I should say, the bikini) over our eyes while the murderer very cleverly does the same.
In the end, just when you think you know what's happened, you don't. Brand isn't finished with us yet.
I loved this book and recommend it highly to those among us who love a devilishly clever mystery in the style of the Golden Age.