Death in Fancy Dress (1933) by Anthony Gilbert

This is a standalone mystery, from early on in Gilbert’s crime writing career. It is heralded as a country house mystery at which a dead body is discovered after a fancy-dress ball. This is indeed true, yet the ground work that comes before this moment is far more wide ranging and extensive than you might initially assume. After all the book begins in India…

There we find our protagonist Tony Keith, a lawyer, who bumps into an old school friend, Jeremy Freyne, a larger than life personality, with a history of pranks behind him. They are both heading back home, with the latter determined to ask Hilary Felton to marry him. Yet his hopes are dashed arriving in London, when he reads in a newspaper that she is engaged to Arthur Dennis, who works for the Foreign Office. But before he can hop on to another boat, Tony receives two letters, one from Eleanor Felton, who is somehow related to and one from an important man in the Home Office. It is the second letter writer who fills in the blanks that these two troubled letters leave. A series of rich and titled people have been committing suicide in the past twelve months. Prior to each death the victim was hounded by suspicious phone calls and evidence have revealed blackmail was at work. Yet this is blackmail on a hitherto unknown scale and the Home Office, believing that the head of this criminal enterprise is in the vicinity of Felton Abbey want Tony, (and Jeremy), to help their man on the ground who is staying there. His name is Arthur…

We also know that Hilary might be the latest victim, the damning material relating to her father who died under a cloud of suspicion and her step mother. We also get a true Victorian melodrama villain in the guise of her cousin Ralph Felton who is so completely “a wrong’un.” His eye is on Hilary and he is determined to marry her. Arthur and Jeremy are both determined he won’t and are equally not the sort of men to shy away from violence… I’ll leave you to decide whose life ends on the night of fancy-dress ball at Felton Abbey…

Overall Thoughts

I’ve not had the best of experiences with Gilbert’s earlier work, preferring her later Arthur Crook tales, so my expectations for this title were somewhat restrained. Yet I definitely found myself pleasantly surprised, despite being into day 6 of a cold.

There is quite an extensive cast of characters in this book, though since this narrative is something of a slow burner for the first quarter of the novel, we get the chance to commit them to memory a little more effectively. However, as the blackmail plot develops and the different agendas of the “good” and “dubious” characters emerge, as a reader it is hard to not get excited about finding out whose plans will succeed and whose will fail.

I would say Gilbert sets up an elaborate social situation, which is rooted in the scandal of the past concerning Hilary’s father and step mother and as a consequence the mystery the reader has to solve is fairly intricate, with all manner of questions needing to be answered: Who will Hilary marry? How culpable is Hilary in what goes on? Are any of her suitors or family responsible for the death of Ralph? Who is the head of the blackmailing organisation?

You’d expect Arthur, a civil servant, to be dry, crusty, pompous and a physical coward or weakling. But you couldn’t be further from the truth! Externally as cool as a cucumber regardless of provocation from others, yet underneath a ruthless and determined man with a secret service background. Consequently, he is not the anticipated weedy sap you imagine being easily overthrown by either Ralph or Jeremy. Instead he is unpredictable and morally ambiguous, as you try to decide if he will be the typical hero who plays by the rules or whether he will get his hands dirty and transform into more of an anti-hero. The fact Jeremy and Arthur are not depicted as 100% squeaky clean good guys, means that the narrative avoids falling into sheer melodrama, even if Hilary has 3 suitors…

That of course begins me on to the ambiguous and complicated women Gilbert develops in this story. We have Eleanor Felton, Hilary’s stepmother, who is seemingly comfortable with allowing her step daughter to be forced into matrimony to a bad hat so long as her own indiscretions are hidden from her second husband. Then there is Hilary herself, who is inconsiderate, not particularly sensible, reckless and foolish, in even measure, and interestingly when she decides to throw over Arthur for Ralph, it is not entirely because of blackmail pressure. Gilbert is explicit in showing that Hilary feels fated to be with Ralph and let’s be frank finds his bad boy way of being highly attractive. Why Arthur still loves her is beyond me… It is not for nothing that Mrs Ross frequently points out how the (often male) characters pander to Hilary’s whims, fancies and emotions. Yet she is the only character who seems to gauge Hilary’s flaws accurately. Mrs Ross is a widow and as the book progresses, I increasingly enjoyed her sharp and, at times, acid wit.

The death occurs quite late in the book, as once the inquest is concluded there are only 60 pages until the end of the story. The police are very much in the periphery, with the focus being more on Tony, Jeremy and then Arthur. The reader doesn’t know how much they can trust these non-police investigators and in fact they don’t know if they can trust each other. I think the solution turns things upside down quite nicely, I valiantly tried my best to guess the correct least likely suspect variant being used, but still got it hopelessly wrong. Given the limited page space post inquest, the ending did feel rushed. Surprisingly though the final few pages do reveal a raft of clues which could point the reader in the right direction, though I still think your little grey cells will need to be extra sharp to fully anticipate this solution.

The book concludes with two short stories written by Gilbert. The first is ‘Horseshoes for Luck’ which involves a series of poison pen letters going through a horse racing community. The second is ‘The Cockroach and the Tortoise,’ and this begins with a woman claiming she is being blackmailed by her lover, yet the situation develops into a far more peculiar case. Both of these stories feature Inspector Field and are structure around him recalling a case he was involved in.

Rating: 4/5

Source: Review Copy (British Library Crime Classics)

12 comments

  1. Gilbert sounds like she’s in that tranche of GAD writers who were already pushing the detective novel into a more crime novel arena — Portrait of a Murderer did a similar thing in my limited experience of it (ugh, there were so many run-on sentences I couldn’t keep reading…), and it’s pleasing to see even this early evidence of a more character-rich approach at the heart of these novels of crime (if not really detection). I can’t say this is going to jump onto my TBR since PoaM left me a little gun-shy (I’ve been giving up on a lot of books lately, even for me), but you make it sound like something I’ll reach for when I’m after a less common approach in the heartlands of GAD. So thanks for that!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great cover! I hunted down an old copy of this a while back, and had very similar mixed feelings to yours. I just re-read my post, and this is what I said about Hilary: ‘dear me she is a handful. Various suitors pop up throughout the book, but you don’t exactly envy whoever is lucky enough to win her hand. But then, that does make her a refreshing change from most of the heroines of the era.’
    I also – in true Clothes in Books style – had a big diversion to identify exactly what Hilary’s fancy dress costume was, and ended up reading a play of the era (Tantalizing Tommy) to get the full facts. I imagine most people would be more interested in the crime fiction aspects!
    Like you, I came to relish Mrs Ross’s comments.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I had the feeling that you would have a field day with the clothes in this book! Reassuring to see our thoughts chime with one another on Hilary and Mrs Ross. I found it especially intriguing that Gilbert doesn’t show Hilary as having learnt anything from her dilemmas/experiences.

      Like

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