This has been a title which I have been recommended a few times now by various fellow bloggers, but it took a little while to drag down for a reasonable price. But at last a reasonably priced copy appeared, even if it was a large print edition, so I quickly snapped it up and I was very glad I did, as this is another stupendous effort by Gilbert. So much so that I definitely feel Gilbert is deserving of greater recognition within the mystery writing field. Keen vintage mystery fans will probably know of her, but not much of her work has been reprinted and she is certainly worthy of academic/critical examination, especially for how she depicts gender roles and uses spinster characters.
The opening chapters deal with Arthur Crook spending the night at a lonely Hall on the moors, occupied only by an eccentric Colonel and his retainer. Two days later Crooks, safely back in London, reads in the newspaper that the Colonel died, the lid of his ancient bath having fallen and broken his neck. Short of an accident or a suicide, there are only three suspects if it is a murder – Crook, the retainer and the Colonel’s nephew. The inquest delivers a death by misadventure verdict and the story then shifts focus to the nephew, John, and his two aunts, one of whom had died a short while before the Colonel. Another verdict of misadventure, having fallen through a weak balcony rail, within days of the nephew leaving from a visit. Reader attention is therefore fixed on the final remaining aunt Clara, a fierce, no nonsense, keen to get her own way sort of woman. Yet a series of anonymous notes suggest she could be next… I don’t want to say anything more specifically about the plot as its’ many intricacies should be experienced first-hand, but suffice to say Arthur Crook is lurking in the background of the story, eventually revealing the solution to what has been going on, aided by a spinster called Frances Pettigrew.
Well where to begin? A question I did struggle with a bit when trying to write this review as there are some many good things to mention, but they very often all flow as one with the stylistic comments wrapping themselves around points of character. However I will try my best to get on with it…
From the very first chapter you can see Gilbert referencing earlier authors, characters and stories and not just mystery based ones. The gothic set up of the Colonel’s home would normally seem out of place in a 1940s mystery novel, yet Gilbert perfectly normalises this place with Crooks thinking it is ‘almost good enough for E. A. Poe, the huge dark hall, the stairs stretching away into infinity – for the lamp shed only a limited circle of light …’ The sense of unreality which creeps in is rationalised when you encounter the Colonel in person, a man who has not kept up with the times, eschewing items such as the telephone, the wireless, the car and even central heating. Though we’re not to take it all wholly seriously, as Crook goes on to think that: ‘We only want the clank of a chain and we’re in the middle of the Christmas Carol’ and for me the Dickensian atmosphere is reinforced by the Colonel himself who has a strong Miss Havisham feel and back story.
The literary allusions keep coming as the story progresses, with our Miss Pettigrew being referred to as ‘Lady Molly of the Yard,’ which is an allusion to one of Baroness Orczy’s creations. Yet before you get too cosy an image of her, Miss Pettigrew is also described as a ‘human viper’! If you’re new to the work of Anthony Gilbert my advice to you is to never take her characters at face value, especially her spinster ones. I enjoyed her employment and depiction of such a character in The Spinster’s Secret (1946), another story I hugely recommend, yet I feel she takes this type of character a stage further in today’s read with a great deal of originality and creativity. Alas I can say no more! Yet to whet your appetite for this brilliant character, here are a few more snippets from early on in the book:
‘I could have solved the crime far more quickly myself. In fact, I had done so by page 40. If I were Mr Ede I should be inclined to utter a writ for libel against the author. If all police inspectors behaved as foolishly as the one in this book we might all commit murder with impunity.’
‘Why writers of detective stories have to use mysterious blowpipes which I understand are not easily to be acquired even at a universal store like this one, when bricks, bread-knives, coal hammers and pairs of scissors are to be had for the asking and are at least as efficacious, proves my contention that the average murderer is a very foolish fellow.’
Miss Pettigrew showing her aptitude for reviewing crime fiction at her local library
Whilst there is only so much I can say about the plot events, I can at least say it is well plotted as a mystery. Gilbert is definitely sneaky as she lures you in with her characters, meaning you completely forget/overlook the various dialogical clues she disperses. This of course means you initially find her solution contrived or whipped out of a hat, but then Crook very patiently takes you by the hand and points out the various things said and done which you’ve completely missed. I say all of this in the second person to make myself feel a little better. That I’m not the only one who regularly gets fooled by Gilbert. Regardless the solution is an unusual one with plenty of bite and the novel overall has quite a dark hue, in keeping with The Spinster’s Secret, especially in respect to the relationships, financial security and old age of many of the characters. So not only does the story keep throwing up surprises, but it is also enjoyable for the depth of personality it produces in its characters, all of which is intricately bound up with the mystery plot itself. Not to be missed and unsurprisingly strongly recommended.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Death by Blunt Instrument