This is my third encounter with Gilbert’s work, (the first two being The Spinster’s Secret (1949) and Portrait of a Murderer (1934)), and as always Gilbert offers a very different type of mystery. There is no specific blue print or formula which pass between these three books. So Gilbert’s certainly good for the novelty factor.
The story begins with a nurse called Helen Wayland wanting to find a job with patients a little more likely to survive. After all it doesn’t do much good for a nurse’s reputation if her charges die, even if they are very elderly and not very healthy. Things look bright for her with her next case though with Blanche French, a rich middle aged woman who has broken her leg. Chances of dying seem fairly slim. That is until Paul French, Blanche’s husband falls in love with Helen and she eventually with him. One night Helen awakes to the noise of a gunshot. Rushing to Blanche’s room she finds Paul covered in her blood and holding the proverbial smoking gun. In court Paul says he picked up the gun after she turned it on herself as part of a melodramatic argument between the two of them. A conflicted jury gives an open verdict and after a certain amount of time it could be hoped that events would settle and wagging tongues would cease and that Paul could make a new life with Helen. Yet this is not to be when Paul’s housekeeper re-emerges on the scene… Blackmail ensues as well as further violence, yet like Helen we are left wondering until the very end of the story as to what really happened that fateful night between Blanche and Paul.
Like the other two novels I’ve read by Gilbert, characterisation is one of the key strengths of this novel. Gilbert may use familiar character types but she adds her own twist on them: for instance Paul, who is 10 years younger than Blanche, is not your typical financial sponger and instead is a man with drive and ambition to make his own money, whether or not his wife wants him to. Deciding who is or who are the real victims and criminals in this story is no straight forward task as Gilbert shows her characters in varying lights.
The opening third of the book could conceivably be classed as a country house mystery, yet again I would say Gilbert does it her own way and I think her version is a darker one, in comparison to the light and frothy pre-war country house mysteries. Gilbert maintains suspense very well in the story and there is a Francis Iles undercurrent to the tone of the piece. I will say that this story is more of a crime tale than a tale of detection and investigation. Gilbert gives a greater emphasis on how crimes and deaths affect people emotionally, mentally and in their relationships with each other. This is indeed well done, but it has consequences and these consequences significantly affect the final quarter of the story when Arthur Crook finally makes an appearance and gets involves in the now much larger case say we shall (as this book does take place over a few years). To be honest considering what Crook contributes to the tale I don’t think his appearance is worthwhile as he doesn’t really do much in the way of investigating. This is a case which is solved primarily through a criminal over reaching themselves. Equally with the suspect group being so small I guessed the solution early on, though I will say Gilbert provides a dramatic finish.
So given how highly I rated the other two novels by Gilbert that I have read, this read whilst not bad, will look inferior in comparison. Gilbert has a strong writing style and characters which make this a much better read than it would have been in feebler hands, as the plot at the end of the day is perhaps a little too simplistic.
I will end this review with the remarks a house keeper gives on being told off for picking up a gun:
‘It’s news to me to be told what to do in my own house. I was always one to believe there’s a place for everything and everything in its place; and the place for lethal weapons isn’t the drawing room carpet.’
A great piece of dialogue, which could easily have come from a play script.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Revolver