The Clock in the Hat Box (1939) by Anthony Gilbert

I was excited and nervous about reading this book. I have heard so many great things about it, from the likes of Moira, Tomcat and John, yet I was still slightly worried in case I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to or ought to.

The book opens with a trial with a judge summing up to the jury. Viola Ross’ life hangs in the balance as she is being tried for the murder of her husband. One sentence will leap out to reader on the first page: ‘The verdict, therefore, gentlemen of the jury, would appear to turn on the question – who put the clock in the hat box?’ Gilbert certainly knows how to create an interesting hook from onset, but more comments anon. Viola of course was much younger than her husband and is described by narrator and juror, Richard Arnold, to be ‘the kind of person who invites gossip,’ being far more popular with the male of the species than the female. She had also recently sided with her husband’s son from a previous marriage, on the issue of his career and it is quickly revealed that due to her husband’s increasing suspicions and jealousy he was going to cut both of them out of his will. Yet someone has managed to smother him before he had a chance to do so. But was it Viola? Richard’s refusal to convict her, means she is sent for a retrial, but he wants to do more for her than that and thus seeks out Arthur Crook to see if he can prove her innocence. Though as it turns out, it is Richard’s amateur sleuthing that we see far more of. But it is not long before anonymous threats are issued and acted upon…

Overall Thoughts

Well first of all I did not hate this book. Phew! However to be completely honest I feel like I could write many a sentence beginning with, ‘I enjoyed X about the plot,’ yet there would always be a but following after it. In some ways there is a lot of brilliant material in this book, but I think it was not fully exploited. The alarm clock clue is one such example. Equally Gilbert sets up a tantalisingly inconclusive case against Viola, i.e. it is solidly built on circumstantial evidence which could be interpreted one way or another, yet the investigation which follows doesn’t build up the complexity of the case, but rather seems to simplify it. Arthur Crook is also a delight on the whole and it is only a pity that he is so off the page, though I can see why maybe it had to be that way. Dare I say this book could have worked without his presence?

I have been dotting around in my preliminary comments. But that is because I have to use the dreaded the ‘S’ word, which of course is spoilers! To really articulate my conflicting ideas on this book, I need to plunge straight into spoiler territory, so unfortunately I do now have to say goodbye to my readers who have not read the book. In short I would say this is a good read, but that I had expected a little bit more from more Gilbert. However, for those who have read the book carry on…

 

One thing other readers have commented on is how Gilbert changes the game or the direction of the plot and to begin with I want to run through those switches. She commences with our narrator being aligned with Lord Peter Wimsey role in Sayers’ Strong Poison. In fact one character even says to him:

‘I don’t know why you’re so keen to get her off, unless you’re like Lord Peter Wimsey, who was so much intrigued by meeting a murderess that he proposed at once.’

Of course this idea seems to be shot down by his insistent interest in a woman called Bunty, (is it just me who thinks this is awfully close to Bunter?)

So here we get our first change. The reader could be forgiven for thinking perhaps this is turning into an inverted mystery, as Arnold latches on to another suspect and seems to be turning up evidence which implies their guilt. Yet this idea is quickly dispelled for most readers who will begin to pick up on the Roger Ackroyd vibe – i.e. the narrator is the actual killer. Near the end he does in fact confess to killing Viola’s husband. However another change is approaching…

For Crook in the final pages throws up that Viola actually finished the deed, Arnold having not quite killed her husband off. Now this finale switch should have a big wow factor. Yet for me it fell flat. Firstly this additional piece of information does not null and void all of the previous Ackroyd theory. Arnold is still responsible for a lot of other actions that take place and equally the reader has been sitting for most of the book holding this idea and consequently chomping at the bit for the book to hurry up a bit. Viola’s culpability, then stated, does not diminish the element of boredom which creeped in for me at times, before I reached the end. A shorter page span may have reduced this issue? I also think her role in the book was not made full use of due to the way her guilt is revealed, i.e. through Crook’s conversation to a colleague. For me it was a little too prosaic and robbed Viola of her agency. It equally lacked drama. I think her guilt should have been somehow revealed through herself. For the majority of the book she is kept off the page and the information given about her is from different sources, each yielding their own biases. Her final appearance therefore felt somewhat washed out, so when she is unveiled as the principal villain, it felt more anticlimactic as her criminality and personality had not been convincingly built up enough. Her deviancy or ruthlessness doesn’t quite come off the page for me as much as I would have liked.

This book is stronger than my last two reads by Gilbert and it does demonstrate a number of her strengths which I have seen in other works by her, but I feel the issues I have numerated, prevent me from praising it as effusively as others have. The Spinster’s Secret (1946), which emotionally grabbed me more and Death Knocks Three Times (1949), whose clues are more sneaky and whose solution felt more satisfying.

Rating: 4.25/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Made of a best of list (Tomcat’s best reads of 2018)

Calendar of Crime: March (9) Money or inheritance has a major role

4 comments

  1. You still rated it quite highly. So I don’t feel we have overpraised it too much and I can accept that you place Death Knocks Three Times above The Clock in the Hatbox, which I remember having a bit of a Carr-ish atmosphere.

    I still recommend you seek out a copy of Something Nasty in the Woodshed and She Shall Die was quite good as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. An interesting and full review – so enjoyable to be able to read spoilers! I liked it better than you did, but I think we are still on the same page, as you might say. I liked the atmosphere she created, perhaps more than you did – the book didn’t bore me!
    Such a variable writer though – I have very different reactions to different books by her.

    Liked by 1 person

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