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This rocky-horror mystery of murder among the British upper-classes tries to combine the dry sleuthing of Henry James' The Aspern Papers with the fey transsexualism in Virginia Woolf's Orlando--not surprisingly, as this first-novelist is Woolf's nephew and biographer. But where James' monsters of the psyche grow in horror the more they're understated, and where Woolf creates a character who spontaneously and literally changes sex, The Brandon Papers is a blatant, tawdry tale of a man in woman's clothing. We get a good read, though, particularly in the first half, as we join a hyperliterate, chatty narrator in his search to clear up the mystery surrounding the death of Lady Mary Brandon, 73-year-old patron of science--something was covered up, but what? Daughter of rich Sir Amos and his gadabout first wife, Mary was banished to Labrador, at the age of three, with her scandalous stepmother, the second wife. Fifteen years later the old man repents, makes Mary his heir, and sends his 17-year-old nephew, Henry Brandon, sometime transvestite, to bring Mary back to England. Soon after, old Amos dies, and his lawyer gets a letter from (the supposed) Mary: Cousin Henry and the wicked stepmother have perished in a boating accident. Mary and her French maid come to England, and Mary consents to wed her decadent, diabolic cousin Charles Brandon. The maid occasionally hints about a monster who inhabited the Labrador castle--is she obliquely referring to Mary? Interest builds; we become curious about this sinister ""bad twin"" of the young heiress, especially when, the day after the wedding, cousin Charles and his valet are found shot to death, an accident, according to the coroner and family lawyers. All too soon, however, the mystery of Mary is deflated and our interest flags, as, only a quarter of the way through, it's revealed that Lady Brandon was actually a man, "". . .with all the usual trimmings."" So we know what was covered up. She is actually Henry Brandon. His diary tells of how villainous Charles and his valet blackmailed Henry-Mary into marriage. Both of them sodomized him-her on the wedding night, as replayed rather graphically near the end of the book, and we are sorry to have waited only for this. Though Bell wants Mary to be a sympathetic, even noble character, the squalor of the ending, told in the same blithe tone as the rest, makes everyone and everything in the book seem ridiculous, especially as this section is told in the idiotic accents of the French maid, that sorry stock character in too many English fictions.

Pub Date: Oct. 8th, 1985
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Javanovich