Dark Dickensian Read in Anne Meredith’s Portrait of a Murderer (1933)

Source: Review Copy (British Library Crime Classics)

Today’s review is also the 50th reprint in the British Library Crime Classics collection. Anne Meredith was one of the pennames for Lucy Beatrice Malleson, but she was better known under another penname, Anthony Gilbert. Readers of this particular edition also have the additional treats of not only an introduction by Martin Edwards, but also an essay on Christmas crime fiction, which catalogues various festive tales over the last century and a bit, though predominately focusing on those pre 1950.

I imagine many reviews of this book will include the opening paragraph to the tale. After all it immediately shows the reader that this is no light hearted merry Christmas crime story:

‘Adrian Gray was born in May 1862 and met his death through violence, at the hands of one of his own children, at Christmas, 1931. The crime was instantaneous and unpremeditated, and the murderer was left staring from the weapon on the table to the dead man in the shadow of the tapestry curtains, not apprehensive, no yet afraid, but incredulous and dumb.’

These opening lines and the book as it progresses has a definite Dickensian feel to it, in its familial bleakness. Having boldly and bluntly announced the murder of Adrian Gray the narrative jumps back in time to the arrival of Gray’s various relatives, who have come to stay for Christmas at the family home, King’s Poplars, before flinging the guilty party before our eyes. This build up provides a vivid background to the crime portraying that by and large most of the family members are financially desperate and/or in unhappy marriages and/or suffering from thwarted ambitions. Only one couple manage to avoid these predicaments. Equally it is in these family relationships that we get the strongest Dickensian vibe as in the marital situations, the social stations and problems, Meredith writes in a cynically, yet festive Dickensian sort of way. Odd way to describe it but I think once readers dive into the book they’ll see what I mean (hopefully). Like a Dickens’ novel Meredith’s book does not shy away from depictions of real poverty and the effects it has on those in it and these scenes sharply contrast with those at the country house.

This book, in structure, combines elements of those which characterise the works of Francis Iles, (seeing inside the killer’s mind from very early on in the story and being away of their identity), and R. Austin Freeman, (who majored in inverted mysteries). Whilst this book does hold some surprises, the reader is fairly well-informed throughout – though one is very unsure how things will end as the process of law and order unfolds. I think Carolyn Wells sums the story up aptly when she wrote that ‘it seems to me a Human Document, crammed with interest and personality.’ And a fascination from which there is no escape until the last page is reached.’ The psychological drama of this book and its characterisation is brilliantly executed. With such a plot type it has to be. Meredith provides a real depth to her characters and it is interesting seeing which ones you sympathise with and which you don’t and how Gray’s death affects them all. They may all have loathed him in their own ways, but his death is not as beneficial to some as it might have first seemed. Perhaps the only thing I thought a little bit of a shame was that we didn’t get to see very much of Sergeant Ross Murray, as Meredith certainly creates a very appealing and intriguing detective figure, who I would definitely have loved to have read about in further tales. However, I can see why she keeps his presence to a minimum, given the inverted nature of the tale and this way there isn’t lots of repeated information, which can sometimes be a problem with this type of story.

The key strength of this book is Meredith’s writing style, which keeps you reading. It is predominately written in a forthright tone, which does not avoid the unpleasant aspects of life. The killer’s thoughts compel you to read on and there is a definitely a smattering of Raskolnikov about them. Though I would say there is a selfish and self-centered streak running through many of the suspects. The book although combining Iles and Freeman elements, is above all, in my opinion, a psychological crime novel and a very well written one too. The ending perhaps lacked a little something but all in all this was a thoroughly entertaining and darkly festive read.

Rating: 4.5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Snow/Snowy Scene


  1. I knew one of my fellow bloggers would provide me with the excuse needed to give this one a fast-pass on my wish list. And the essay on Christmas crime-fiction sounds grand as well!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating, I had no idea that Anthony Gilbert had another penname. And, as a lover of inverted mysteries, Francis Iles and non-sickly Christmas stories this one sounds like a winner.


  3. I was just about to download this book when I stumbled across your blog – in particular the post on Death And The Dancing Footman. As Ngaio Marsh is my all time favourite crime writer, I was delighted. And particularly delighted to read of the Christmas story essay in Portrait of a Murderer, as I have just been commissioned to write a Christmas short in my own series. So thank you very much!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you’ve found your way to the blog. I’ve written quite a few posts on Marsh and her work, though I’m probably not such a big fan as you are. Scales of Justice is probably one of my favourites though. Meredith’s book will definitely show you a darker approach to writing Christmas crime fiction and the essay will certainly give you a number of others to try. Martin does mention Tied up in Tinsel, you’ll be pleased to know.


  4. I’ve recently read this one too – though decided to keep my blogpost till Christmas as a festive entry. (Not, as you’ll agree, that it’s terribly festive: just seasonal). Yours is a very good analysis of it: the Dickensian comparison hadn’t occurred to me, but is spot on.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. My husband picked this up based on your Country House mystery list (as I told you) and I was going to wait a while to read it, but couldn’t resist. I am not reading your assessment until I get my thoughts down because i am too easily influenced, but I would definitely rate this at 4.5 out of 5 … very close to 5 actually, so maybe we liked the same things. I liked it better than my husband did. He is reading Hare’s An English Murder right now and enjoying it. (I read that one a few years back.)

    Liked by 1 person

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