Source: Review Copy (Dean Street Press)
Next February as I mentioned a few posts ago, the Dean Street Press are reprinting Elizabeth Gill’s three 1930s mystery novels, the other two being, What Dread Hand (1932) and Crime De Luxe (1933).Today’s read is the first of these and is being reprinted under the USA title, The Crime Coast. Since this is a very early peek at the book I unfortunately don’t have access to Curtis Evans’ introduction to the book, which also means I don’t know anything else about Gill apart from the three books she wrote, as the internet seems pretty void of information on her.
The story begins with a newspaper report of a sensational murder and robbery which takes place at Bishop’s hotel in London. Luela da Costa, a rich Argentine and guest at the hotel is smothered in her room, wearing only her jewellery, whilst another guest on the same corridor has her expensive and famous jewellery stolen. Police are keen to track down the young man Luela had lunch with and also the young woman she saw later that afternoon.
The story then switches to our protagonist Paul Ashby, a lawyer who is going on a holiday to the South of France with a difference. Prior to leaving, Ashby had an unusual guest at his flat, a Major Kent who was going to visit the private detective upstairs, but whose poor heart led to him falling down and ending up at Ashby’s front door instead. After a brief conversation Kent offers Ashby ‘a rather extraordinary proposition,’ paying him to go and look for his son Adrian who he believes will be in and around St Antoine. Kent is dying and wishes to find his son before this happens. But unfortunately 6 months ago they had a row over a woman Adrian was infatuated with. Worse follows as Kent receives a letter from his son only to say that he won’t return to him until he has sorted out the mess he is in with Luela. She is threatening to accuse him of stealing some of her jewels (which she actually gave to him as gifts), if he does not return to her.
Ashby agrees and quickly makes useful friends in St Antoine, including artist and amateur sleuth, Benvenuto Brown, as well another artist named Adelaide Moon, who are both coincidentally good friends with Adrian. They too have bad news to impart as it seems Adrian’s problems are far more complicated than Ashby first imagined. But how far can he trust those around him?
Initially the device of using a newspaper report to communicate a murder reminded me of another Dean Street Press author, Robin Forsythe, especially his novel The Polo Ground Mystery (1932). However, in Gill’s case this device is not used for satire but for efficiency in quickly giving us some important details.
I enjoyed the choice of setting as I think Gill recreates the St Antoine setting well, particularly the artist community. Yes there is lots of partying and unusual choices in clothing, but she also reveals a more domesticated side to it all. This is probably a good thing as Ashby is not really at home in the Bohemian lifestyle, an awkwardness which provides a gentle humour to the text at times.
Another book I was reminded of was John Bude’s Death on the Riviera (1952), which apart from their similar choice of location, they also both include mysteries which have more than one strand or crime to them. In some ways I don’t think this is a conventional investigation, as Brown doesn’t really interact with the Scotland Yard official with the usual amateur/police dynamic. Moreover, I don’t think this is a mystery with lots of initial clues to follow up and it is more a case of Brown and Ashby spying on certain characters and using information from this to direct their next steps. The mystery is perhaps quite easy to fathom for the observant reader, as I clocked the murderer very early on. But since this is Gill’s first mystery I felt I could be a little lenient, as I felt she has a lot of potential as a writer and I’d be interested to see whether a change of or a more conventional detective fiction plot type might marry her strong writing skills with a more complex mystery.
Brown himself is also an intriguing sleuth and it would be interesting to see how he develops in the later books. I’m not entirely sure if I would like him as a friend but he certainly intrigues me. One moment in particular caught my attention when he gives his view on the majority of murderers:
‘The result is that the majority of murders are committed by people who are mentally, physically, or morally diseased, and so are better out of the way.’
A questionable viewpoint but it got me thinking, especially when Brown continues on to talk more favourably about the less common type of murderer and I think I came away with a sense that Brown has a form of murderer class snobbery and in a way his brand of justice would fit well with Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley’s.
This book also comes with the first chapter of the second Brown mystery, What Dread Hand and it seems to be along more conventional lines focusing on a group of people going to see a play which is meant to be a hit. Friction and tension begins to emerge when members of the production come to join the party. In particular there is a newly engaged couple, Juliet and Charles and at the end of the first chapter we are left with the sense that she is wondering how much she really knows about Charles and how much she can trust him.