Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Knife
I have only read one book by Gilbert before, a collection of short stories called Mr Calder and Mr Behrens (1982). It wasn’t quite my thing so I haven’t returned to this author until now when I thought I would give one of their novels a try.
This is a court trial novel and Victoria Lamartine is on trial for the murder of her supposed lover, Major Eric Thoseby. The prosecution asserts Victoria murdered him because he deserted her after she became pregnant by him during his time in France as part of the Resistance. As a consequence she ended up being caught in a Gestapo raid and gave birth to the child in prison and the child due to lack of food died some years later. Circumstantial evidence appears to substantiate this story. He had arranged to meet her at the hotel she worked at in London and she was found by his body, her finger prints on the knife he was stabbed with. The prosecution also points out how this case is a ‘‘sealed box’ mystery’ as there was only one stair way to the Major’s rooms which was observed by other staff or residents prior to the time of death and subsequently it seems everyone is else is able to account for their movements.
However, Victoria denies this to be the case and presents a very different story for why she wanted to see the Major. The story has a fast pace and tense atmosphere due to the fact that at the very start of the book Victoria changes her legal counsel and her case is allowed to be tried 8 days later. Therefore her new legal team comprised of amateurs and professionals have a short amount of time to prove her innocence and find the one who really did murder Thoseby. A key element is trying to track down Lieutenant Wells a man who has not been seen since the Gestapo raid and no one knows if he is alive or dead. Attention is also given to the staff and two of the residents at the hotel, as through both information found by Angus McCann and Noel Anthony Pontarlier Rumbold (Nap), the two characters who do most of the leg work in England and France, and through the smart cross examining by Hargest Macrea, it seems there is something decidedly fishy going on with this group of people. This suspicion crystallises when both Nap and McCann face unexpected opposition and violence during their investigations. Never has the phrase to open a can of worms been more apt. But as the trial begins it seems to be a race against time for Victoria’s legal team to find out the truth.
From its plot you could easily just think this another run of the mill legal thriller, but I actually think Gilbert came up with quite a clever story and the backstory behind the crime, although having familiar elements, is well told. There were also a number of unexpected red herrings, one of which certainly had me fooled. But the solution itself is well supported and at the end you can cast your mind through the story and see the clues. The ending was a little rushed for my tastes but overall the pace was effective. Sometimes in court room mystery novels the story can become bogged down in the exactness of the witness questioning. But this is not the case in this book which keeps the dialogue engaging and the court room chapters are often interchanged with others which chart Nap and McCann’s activities.
I was happily surprised by the depth of characterisation in this story. For instance the opening of the novel says a lot more about the prejudice and assumptions of the court sightseers than it does about the defendant who they are commenting on:
‘There’s something about a woman, I mean – a murderess…’
‘Not pretty, no. But smart. French girls know about clothes.’
‘Then, you know, if she did do it – I mean, pretty cold-blooded. Even if they don’t hang her they’ll sentence her to death. There’s something about a girl being sentenced to death.’
I think what also made the cross examining entertaining to read was the wit of Macrea, the defence counsel. One of my favourite lines from the book was one which said ‘his greatest single weapon was his monocle’ and it was also enjoyable to see him put witnesses in awkward positions. Additionally another minor character which intrigued me was a school teacher named Evans who McCann meets to find out more about Lieutenant Wells and it also turns out that both Evans and McCann were commandos in the war. However the interesting part was when Evans talks about how he deliberately eschews the commando look, adopting long hair and flamboyant clothing instead and how he won’t even admit to his employers his wartime role:
‘If I let on that I’d been in the Commandos and so on – you know what I mean. It takes an awful lot of living up to. Boys are such whole-hearted creatures, you’ve no idea. I’d have been expected to have a cold bath every morning in the winter and – why, good heavens, if a mad bull had appeared on the playing fields it would have been ‘Send for Evans.’ Life wouldn’t have been worth living. So I just told them I’d been a conscientious objector all the war and had been doing agricultural work in North Wales.’
Of course there is some flippancy in this statement, but it did intrigue me why he felt the need to lie and to completely change his exterior persona. Was the expectations of being an ex-commando that great? Is he such a radically different person now? Is there a sense of shame or guilt perhaps about what he had to do? There is an untold story in the book.
Early on in the story a real life trial is alluded to, that of the Oscar Slater case in 1909, where Slater was convicted for the robbery of and subsequent death of Marion Gilchrist. However, many attempts over the next two decades were made to show that this was a wrong conviction and that the prosecution’s case was inaccurate and unreliable. Slater did eventually get released with compensation in 1927 and died in 1948, a few year prior to this book’s publication. In this story there is a feeling that the police did cut some corners in their investigation and ignored or held back information which did not fit their theory.
Definitely a good read and one I enjoyed more than I thought I was going to.