Anthony Gilbert is an author I’ve known of for a while, but never been able to track down for a reasonable price. Things this year though have changed, as firstly I came across this book, which is another reprint in the Pandora Women Crime Writers series and is the 15th book in Gilbert’s Arthur Crook series. Secondly the British Library have also reprinted Gilbert’s Portrait of Murderer, (published under the penname Anne Meredith), which I shall be reviewing soon.
Today’s read has a delightful opening sentence, which hints at how the book will unfold:
‘Before you set out to commit a murder,’ said Arthur Crook – who was like certain Cabinet Ministers in that he rejoiced in sweeping statements – ‘there’s one important point to bear in mind, something like a lion in your way. And even a lion-tamer, can’t be sure of circumnavigating this one: that is, there’s no fool proof method of murder. You can be as clever as Old Nick, as careful as a Foreign Minister, foresee every mistake to which criminals are liable and guard against ‘em all; but even so, you may be tripped up, through no fault of your own, by means of The Invisible Witness. The invisible witness is the person you couldn’t account for, and therefore can’t protect yourself against.’
Janet Martin, is one of these invisible witnesses. She is lonely, old and spends a lot of time watching outside her bedsit window. Yet of course from Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) we know that ‘there is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.’ Janet does not have any nice relations, frequently being bullied, criticised and neglected by her niece Doreen who sometimes visits. The social circumstances of Janet’s life are revealed and are intrinsic to the mystery plot. Janet is drawn to watching one little girl named Pamela and her nurse Theresa Lawrence from her window. Eventually she gets into conversation with them and invites them around for tea. She in turn is invited to a birthday celebration at their home. Pamela is an orphan who the invalided Mr Scott has taken in after the war. He has an unpleasant and difficult sister, who is always nagging him to leave his money to her and her son. Nevertheless Mr Scott intends to disinherit them and leave his money to Pamela and in fact Janet witnesses his will at the birthday party.
Illness and her unkindly niece force Janet into residential care. Given what she knows of Pamela’s life you can imagine her consternation when she sees Pamela at a nearby orphanage for the destitute. What has happened? Has Mr Scott died? If so why is she there? And why is there under a different name? Although everyone assumes Janet is a senile old woman, she persists in trying to find out the truth, roping in Pamela’s old nanny, before of course enlisting the help of Arthur Crook. The crime itself may be easy to unravel but what happens next is certainly not. This is a tale full of powerful twists and surprises, with the reader’s sense of unease increasing page by page wondering how things will work out, in a story which makes no promises for a fairy tale ending.
This is a brilliant unconventional mystery novel, defying the clearer labelling of a whodunit or howdunit. Normally if I can figure out the crime element my attention wavers, wondering how the pages will be filled. But this is not the case with this novel which hooks you from the very start and doesn’t let you go until the end. Janet is a very well thought out and well created character. You immediately engage with her and feel a great deal of sympathy for her and her situation. In fact I would say this is a key example of crime fiction exploring attitudes towards the elderly and their care. The book, at points, makes you wonder whether much has changed since. When Janet arrives at the residential home the reader soon becomes aware of how more vulnerable she is and how such a setting becomes more like a prison: ‘But even now her sense of liberty was gone. People could put restraints upon her. She must be careful, because she no longer belonged to herself.’ The plot at times almost reminds me of a film called The Cabbage Wars (2002), though of course this tale is much darker. Having said that I think this book would make for a great TV or film adaptation.
In many respects I would say Gilbert’s book is a modernised version of plot tropes commonly found in Sensation or Victorian fiction, especially with characters such as Janet, Theresa and Pamela. More importantly perhaps is that these elements work really well. This is not your typical clue based mystery, yet even so Gilbert sneaks in a number of clever and subtle clues which make you want to revisit the earlier narrative to see what you missed. Janet and Arthur are a very entertaining, yet incongruous pairing, which work well on the page and I liked how Janet is not the stereotypical invincible old lady sleuth and she can be considered a rewriting of Christie’s Miss Marple.
Unsurprisingly I strongly recommend this book as a must read. Gilbert writes like Roald Dahl in the sense that she provides you with the unexpected. You think you know what’s going on but then the plot veers off another way. From plot to setting to atmosphere and character I think this book has it all really and is one which I think will emotionally stay with me for quite some time.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Painting