Today I return to one of my go-to authors, who I have neglected for quite a bit. My copy is the American Bantam one, hence my blog post title starting the American name – though to be honest I prefer the wonderfully odd British title.
‘The frightened, tired old man stood in the blacked-out hallway, fumbling with the lock of Mr Crook’s door. He didn’t look like a housebreaker to Mr Crook, who was an expert in such matters. Nor did he look like the agent who was to plunge Arthur Crook, that most cynical and hard-boiled of private investigators, into the deadliest and most dangerous of his career. Death in the Blackout is a swift amusing and sinister mystery laid in war-time London.’
I have to admit that the Bantam edition synopsis really doesn’t give much away, and I think rather overstates the hardboiled hue to Arthur Crook. The Criminal Record in The Saturday Review doesn’t give much away either writing: ‘Meeting of lawyer-sleuth Arthur Crook and slightly addled Mr “Tea Cosy” begins series of sinister occurrences in London during Blitz.’ We gain another character name and an adjective for that person, but I have to say I didn’t have much of an idea of what the story was going to be about. I did not mind this and found it quite interesting to going into a book this blind.
Although published in 1942, the story is predominantly set in 1941. The beginning, however, starts ‘in the late summer of 1940.’ The narrative commences by explaining why many of the flats in Arthur Crook’s building are empty: ‘when Hitler’s Blitzkrieg on London was staggering everyone except the English, one of his pilots, for reasons best known to the High Command, dropped a bomb uncomfortably near the roomy flat occupied by Mr Arthur Crook.’ Most of the residents fled for the countryside, yet the story homes in one person who did not: Miss Bertha Simmons Fitzpatrick. Along with ‘The Tea Cosy,’ Fitzpatrick is one of the more memorable characters of the book. This is not surprising given the introduction she gets. We are initially told that:
‘for the good of the country joined Churchill’s Silent Column and was very fierce at pinning down enemy spies, discovering them in the most improbable disguises. She believed the Prime Minister when he said they were all around her […]’
She watches the comings and goings of the building and is suspicious of Crook. We then get this wonderfully odd detail that she plays the harmonium whilst doing surveillance from her window, singing ‘Nearer, my God, to Thee/ Nearer to Thee/ E’en though it be a bomb/ That raiseth me.’ I think the basis of this song is an actual hymn, but Gilbert cheekily changes a word in the third line. I don’t know whether this change is of her own invention or whether it was one which was doing the rounds culturally. Fitzpatrick is a well described character, perhaps the most extensively described character in the book ranging from being a ‘shawled troglodyte’ and ‘her sparse grey hair sticking out in all directions like a detachment of steel pins’ to her having a ‘voice like a nutmeg-grater’ and ’looking now like a very untidy penguin.’ She sounds like quite a tricky character to cast for if you were going to adapt it for film!
I think one of the reasons the writer spends a bit more time on Fitzpatrick as a character is so she can set up a particular interaction dynamic between her and Arthur Crook. We’re not surprised that it is uphill work for him to elicit pertinent information about the comings and goings from the building from her. Moreover, Gilbert also uses this scene as an opportunity for some further humour:
‘But Miss Fitzpatrick assured him that she didn’t bet and it was time for her thinking anyway. Pressed for an explanation by a fascinated Mr Crook, she said she devoted a proportion of each day to thinking right thoughts for those that needed them. Today, for instance, she had a well-known statesman in mind.’
“Don’t let me discourage you […] but you’ll have to think a hole into that chap’s head before you can think of any sense into it.”
“More things are wrought by thought than this world dreams of,” the old woman misquoted, to which Crook replied that thought might be very well, but a blunderbuss was generally a lot quicker.’
‘The Tea Cosy,’ real name Theodore Kersey is also something of an oddity too, spending his days at the British Library researching a theory he has on time travel. As to why Kersey gets given this nickname, I am not really sure. Perhaps others who have read this book could enlighten me? His arrival into the narrative is an effective one and produces some gentle humour as Crook has to process Kersey’s unusual behaviour and their exploration of the latter’s actual flat is also well-written. Gilbert builds up the tension and I won’t tell you what happens next… I wondered how things were going to develop from here as it is not initially obvious what direction the plot will go in, but I think Gilbert does a good job of quickly pulling together and shaping a mystery from this starting point.
As well as interesting social details related to the war, we are also treated to other little snapshots of 1940s England, in the novel, and at one point Crook and Kersey find common ground when they bemoan the unreliability of cleaning ladies. Kersey’s had not turned up that day, so they wonder who might be in Kersey’s flat. Crook poses this question: “You don’t think the charwoman recovered and decided to pop round after lunch?” I love the lines that follow this query: ‘The Tea-Cosy’s eyes nearly fell out of his head at this bizarre suggestion. “I am the last man in the world to deny the possibility of miracles […] but even so…”’ This story also features another occasion in which a Gilbert mystery has an employment agency for women as part of the plot. The other title I have read with this element in is The Woman in Red (1941), which is the previous book to today’s read. I am not sure if it was the wartime climate which influenced Gilbert to incorporate this social aspect or not. In addition, I also had to laugh when two different characters deliberately don’t put any postage on their mail in order to ensure it gets sent to the recipient. The theory seems to be the postal service will definitely deliver the item so they can get the postage costs paid.
Nick at The Grandest Game in the World has also reviewed this title and like him I think this is an entertainingly told story, but that its weakness is the fact the ending does not remain hidden long enough. The pool of suspects is small and by the 100 page mark the reader should have sufficient pieces of the puzzle to complete the picture of what has been going on. That is not to say that the cluing is not good, as Gilbert does an excellent job at including big and small clues, the latter of which are quite interesting details, which you are liable to miss, but show you why Arthur can be so sure early on that he knows who did it. I think more misdirection and red herrings, or a more complex plot would have made this a brilliant mystery.