book review

A Ring of Roses by Mary Anne Ashe (AKA Christianna Brand)

The hospital setting in Green for Danger came directly from Christianna Brand’s experience working in such a facility during World War II. The gangsters in A Ring of Roses come directly from Brand’s reading Damon Runyon–that’s my guess anyway. It’s not necessarily a problem because ARoR is about artifice; it makes sense that the characters are artificial. It’s just amusing that the mystery author most known for brilliant characterization gives us two hoods straight out of the “dat-dem-dese” schools of gangster stereotype.

And it is terribly entertaining.

Some of the smaller guys – it hadn’t been nice, seeing their women and their kids too, sometimes petrified in the background, watching the cool, efficient gunning down of a husband and father; but he’d never failed in such cases to see to the interment – he had a nice little corner in funeral parlors and florists, and much of his revenue from these was collected in kind – after all, funerals were numerous in Al’s walk of life. And unless they’d been obliged to smash up a place beyond repair – reluctantly, because who kills the goose that lays the golden egg? – but sometimes necessarily as an example to other little men foolish enough to contemplate a like resistance – had often helped the survivors to build up again to a point where they could afford to pay for protection: which, after all, was all he had asked them to do in the foist place.

Yeah. The foist place!

This novel shares much in common with Cat and Mouse, Brand’s previous tale of sinister somethings brewing in the Welch countryside. We’ve got Detective Chucky, disfigurement, off-page characters (who may or may not be real), and over-the-top levels of passion–they all play huge roles building Brand’s version of gothic hothouse. Previously, London Particular was a paragon of character (depth, dialogue, you name it) with motives pure and shockingly believable. Not as much with ARoR, though the motive in this one turns out to be simple and strong.

The difference between story and plot is heightened in a mystery. We know the story part, but the plot (the inner system of gears) is only gradually revealed. If the plot ends up being recognizable as the cause of that story, we are satisfied–shocked, giddy, amazed at the complexity (or simplicity) of the construction. But in a certain sense, the story’s only purpose in a mystery is to misdirect the reader from the plot. The story of ARoR does this quite well.

Estella is the type of television star whose popularity is dependent on the personality built by the press. She’s had a rough life. When she was a showgirl in Chicago (don’t ask), Estella got knocked up by Al, a sweet, violent hood named after Al Capone. One time, when he wasn’t being sweet, Al kicked her in the stomach and went to jail. The baby came out deformed and mentally disturbed. Her movement is described as “hobbling crabwise” by more than one person. Alphonse, feeling guilty about his “pore, crippled liddle kiddy”, supports Estella with money.

The baby was rushed off to the Welch countryside to live with friends. In the meantime, Estella moved to London, becoming famous due to the publishing of a “daily diary” which details Estella’s struggle to raise her crippled daughter. The “diary” is actually written by her handler, Bunny, whose influence on Estella cannot be exaggerated.

Al is released early because of his bum ticker, and he and his associate (the sociopathic Elk) fly to the UK to finally see his daughter. Things take a rather bloody turn for the worse.

ARoR is decidedly a minor novel in terms of ambition, but there’s a lot to admire here. Look at the openings of Chapters 1 and 5–the similar descriptions used for both the television set and the Welch farm tell us we’re being duped. It’s such a subtle touch. Where most novelists include description to set the scene, Brand does it to relay information.

There’s a sense that Chucky was meant to have his own series of novels. He’s more prominent here than in CaM. He’s also married to the star of that novel That’s right Katinka is now Mrs. Chucky, and she’s taken to housewifing like a fish to water. It’s lovely that she complains about Chucky’s constant work, but (at the same time) she understands completely due to her previous experiences with him.

All in all, it’s a fun, entertaining mystery–not top-level Brand, but worth tracking down all the same. You’ll find a lot of the narrative play she’s known for. My favorite touch was the use of newspaper headlines to foreshadow the next chapter. And we get a lot of theories built up quickly before being torn down at the same speed.

On a side note, thanks again to the fellow Brand fan who made it possible for me to read this.

6 thoughts on “A Ring of Roses by Mary Anne Ashe (AKA Christianna Brand)”

  1. I practically dropped my phone in excitement when I saw this post. It’s a tough book to track down, and this may be the first full review that I’ve seen. Yeah, Christianna Brand might have seven books better than this, but what amazing books those are. A Ring of Roses is an absolute treat and it’s a sin that it isn’t more widely read. There are scenes in this book (mostly from the final third) that still stand out vividly in my mind. And that touching bit of symbolism…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In the case of Cat and Mouse, I remember reading reviews that made it seem it was not a murder mystery, and I recall something similar about this one. I had no interest in reading a Brand uninvolved with murder. I can sort of see CaM being spoiled if the reader knows it’s murder, but even then, how is that different from any other mystery? Is it a spoiler to say Green For Danger is not about a therapeutic misadventure? Ridiculous.

      I think I enjoyed the set-up to this one more than the final third, and I definitely think Cat and Mouse is the far superior (better constructed) novel. I’m def glad I read it though. I would say I’m hopeful these novels will be more readily available, but that’s the case for all of Brand’s work. There must be one hell of a copyright entanglement at work here.

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      1. Cat and Mouse is a bit tricky to review because the nature of the story changes dramatically, and the fact that it contains… er, spoilers(?)… a murder is one of the delights that you get to uncover. But yeah, we definitely all went into it hoping we were getting a murder mystery, right? And of course Brand wrote a handful of non-mystery novels, so one has to be careful.

        Speaking of which, does this take you to the end of Brand’s core run of mystery novels? I’m still trying to track down The Four Cornered Halo and The Honey Harlot with the faint hope that they might turn out to be mysteries of some sort (well, The Honey Harlot obviously concerns the mystery of The Mary Celeste, but I’m not sure if it will read as a mystery).

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Both are available on Kindle, and I’ll def give The Four-Cornered Halo a try eventually. I’ve heard it described as a comic mystery which doesn’t bode well. If it is worthy, I’ve seen 1st edition hardcovers for under $40. It would probably behoove me to let you review it first though. That way, I’ll know what I’m getting into.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Glad you liked this. It offers so much of what Christianna Brand does well (e.g., characters, atmosphere, etc.). I often wonder if her output had been that of Carr and Christie whether she would be better known, re-published, etc. Nevertheless, her novels including this one remain prized possessions.

    Liked by 1 person

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