Friday’s Forgotten Book: Courtier to Death (1936) by Anthony Gilbert

This is earliest novel I have read by this author, with my other reads coming from the 1940s; The Spinster’s Secret (1946) and Death Knocks Three Times (1949), and the 1950s; Riddle of a Lady (1956) and Death Takes a Wife (1959). My favourites were the earlier titles, which did on well on the puzzle and characterisation front, so I was hoping today’s read would be another strong title and for my American readers this book had its name changed for American publication to The Dover Train Mystery.

It all kicks off with lawyer Rodney Glyn, becoming entranced by a girl at a party and ever the inquisitive man he endeavours to find out who she is. It turns out she is Eve Dulac the secretary to Mr Fleming, a prominent figure of the Foreign Office and also a financer for the films produced by the up and coming Julian Lane. She is remarkably reticent about herself, even to a snubbing degree, yet Glyn is all the more intrigued when he overhears a scrap of dialogue between her and Julian concerning the arrival of a train later that night and of a man on it who may carry a gun. Yet this passenger turns out to be Rene Tessier, the actor destined to play the lead in Lane’s next production, which will be quite a comeback for him after he dropped out of the limelight two years previously when his son committed suicide. However the very next day he is found dead in his shabby hotel room, a note beside him and poison in his system. His room door locked from the inside of course. The inquest is all set to record this as another suicide, yet Eve thinks differently. Ever keen to help Glyn begins to investigate and quickly pairs himself up with a Scotland Yard inspector, who are then both joined by a police counterpart from the Sûreté when they head to Paris for a case which develops into a much bigger crime than any of them were expecting…

Overall Thoughts

My prediction of the earlier the better when it comes to quality in Gilbert’s novels has unfortunately become undone with this read…

Given how Gilbert is a writer who excels in memorable and powerful characterisation, I can only assume she was having a day off when she did this one. There is no real lead character who has presence. Glyn may begin set up as a prime candidate for amateur sleuthing:

‘Glyn was one of those men whose tortuous minds delight in problems, the more obscure the better […] In addition, he was a lawyer, with the suspicious type of mind such a profession breeds. He was greedy, too. When a case was brought to him he didn’t probe delicately, he tore the flesh off the bones and then set about discovering what had happened to the meat that wasn’t there.’

But unfortunately by the time they reach Paris his sleuthing skills seem to have died still born. He’s not even a Watson figure, though he does his fair share of being baffled, though his police counterparts don’t exactly keep him up to date at times. And speaking of policemen, the French one has the most dynamic personality of the three, though he doesn’t have stiff competition exactly, as Detective Inspector Field is no more than a name really, which is awkward when he is there for three quarters of the novel. What about Eve you ask? Well I had high hopes for her as being a subtly ambiguous character, yet unfortunately her role is more of a walk on part. She sets the case off in motion at the beginning of the book and then doesn’t reappear until the final chapters. She doesn’t even get to be a heroine in distress. Of course this makes Glyn’s infatuation for her all the more inexplicable. At least with her minimal page presence any hope of a romance is pretty much stamped out. I am understandably baffled myself by the lack of a vibrant female lead, as my experience of Gilbert’s work has lead me to expect such a character. Perhaps this was a trait which was more developed in her later work.

This book may have only had 250 pages, but it definitely felt a lot lot lot longer! The boredom began to set in when the drug trafficking element was introduced. Is it just me or are drug centred mysteries very often the boring ones? There are some clever clues in this case, but the identity of the culprit didn’t elicit any enthusiasm or interest from myself.

I think this might be my least favourite read by Gilbert, which is a shame as I have had such good experiences with her work in the past. Oh well at least I took one for the team…

Rating: 3.25/5

10 comments

  1. I’ve read a couple of her early books – Death at Four Corners (1929), The Body on the Beam (1932). Very Humdrum Croftsian procedurals; little mystery (police build case against wrong man, amateurs investigate victim’s past and find real culprit); and none of the vim of the Crooks.

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    • I’ll consider that a warning to avoid Gilbert’s 1930s mysteries. It is boggling to compare her work from that decade to what she goes onto do in the 1940s. Almost feels like two different writers at work.

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      • The problem also is that the 1920s are dominated by that colossal bore Crofts. His mould of laborious detection, without charm, characterization, or cleverness, was easy to write and imitate. The fair play puzzle plot doesn’t really appear in Britain until 1934, with Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. It had been the dominant form in the States since at least 1926, with Van Dine’s Benson Murder Case, if not earlier (I haven’t read enough A.K. Green or Carolyn Wells to judge).

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  2. I have a copy of this and also the first one that featured M. Depuy – THE MAN IN THE BUTTON SHOES. I read …BUTTON SHOES first, but it got more and more dreary and plodding and I never finished it. I’m not so sure I’m interested in tackling COURTIER OF DEATH. The Scott Egerton books are — according to Nick — along the same lines and I have all but two of those. Never read one, but I’ve always been interested in seeing the difference between Egerton and Crook. Egerton was a friend and associate of Crook and is mentioned by name in at least one book I read. But clearly Arthur Crook is her best creation and I’ve really enjoyed all of them. Some of the Crooks are landmarks in the genre (especially CLOCK IN THE HATBOX) and the others I’ve read always have something to recommend them even if they don’t always achieve her remarkable level of ingenuity.

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