The Black Stage (1945) by Anthony Gilbert

This is another book which has been sat on my TBR pile for a while, but fortunately it was a more successful read than my previous one. The availability of Gilbert’s work is mixed. Due to the Green Penguin reprint, there are more second-hand copies of this title, so I think this might be a Gilbert mystery more people have read, aside from the two non-Arthur Crook titles in the British Library Crime Classics series and The Spinster’s Secret which was reissued by Pandora Women Crime Writers a while back. Murder Room reprinted a lot, if not all, of Gilbert’s books, but they are incredibly expensive to buy if you want a paperback, except for the odd title such as The Woman in the Red. Kindle users may fare better here. It’s a shame though that her work is not better known.

Synopsis

‘Lewis Bishop was born to be murdered – the perfect victim, a man whom many had every reason to hate and fear. When he is suddenly shot dead one night he leaves behind him only unpleasant memories, a flood of relief, and a pretty puzzle for the police – and a case for the irrepressible detective Arthur Crook . . .’

Overall Thoughts

Interestingly, I would say, that this story is not completely typical of the mystery style normally found in the Arthur Crook series. For instance, it does not include a woman or child in jeopardy, because they have been kidnapped, such as in Don’t Open the Door! (1945), The Spinster’s Secret (1946) or The Woman in Red (1941). However, we do have a female suspect who is wrongfully arrested for a murder, due to incriminating circumstantial evidence, who Arthur Crook must prove innocent. Sometimes, things run to the wire and the woman is already on trial, other times she is awaiting trial. Examples include: The Clock in the Hat Box (1939) and He Came by Night (1944).

Nevertheless, what makes this a more atypical Arthur Crook mystery is its traditional murder mystery setup:

  • A country house setting
  • Long term house party/return of family members
  • A really unpleasant victim whose plans are to marry a foolish but wealthy older woman and cut every relation out of the picture.
  • The murder of the aforementioned really unpleasant victim takes place in the library, on a stormy night when the lights have fused.

This is some mystery writers’ bread and butter, but it feels less usual for Anthony Gilbert, who often has working women as her protagonists, or more marginalised characters. Arthur Crook also tends to operate more often in urban environments rather than rural ones.

However, our starting point is our sort of female protagonist, Anne Vereker. I say sort of, as once she is arrested, she falls off the page. This is not completely unheard of in the Crook mysteries, as this also occurs in He Came by Night, but usually the narrative taps in to the fate of the female lead more often. But then again, I think Anne is perhaps an atypical heroine for Gilbert, which I will comment upon later.

The novel opens at a train station, with Anne and an unnamed man alighting. This is the only scene the man appears in and looking back on the story his primary function is to recommend Arthur Crook to Alistair (Anne’s cousin), when Anne is arrested. Yet even this takes place off the page, and it is only included as a passing reference.

Nevertheless, before that point he is our first eyes and ears on Anne. He is attracted to her, but she is aloofly self-possessed and reticent. Reflecting on this for far too long, I think that it is not unreasonable for her to not want to interact with a random man. There is this narrative expectation in books for characters to chum up with every stranger they meet, so they can prove to the reader that they are not standoffish. The standoffish stance is perhaps embedded by the man’s further thoughts that he sees a massive gulf between them socially, despite the war. Before he departs the story, he also thinks to himself:

‘if they’d made a poster of her and put it up in the Middle East, say, over the caption – What we are fighting for – it would have heartened quite a lot of fellow who weren’t quite sure what it was, and if it was worth all they were being asked to pay for it.’

Firstly, we see the objectifying viewpoint on Anne, a viewpoint she might have picked up on, and therefore been put off from interacting and secondly, we see a brief but critical perspective on the war, which echoes sentiments found in earlier WW1 literature.

Something else which comes out of the opening scene as Alistair and Anne meet for the first time again in years, is how the world they belong to socially, the home they lived in, is un-besmirched by the war. Yet the pair have differing views on this world. For some like Alistair and their Aunt Tessa it is all about ‘getting back to pre-1939 standards’ which Tessa Goodier is apparently doing ‘with the velocity of a V2.’ But for Anne it is something she looks at with disdain:

‘Anne leaned back, taking more pleasure than she cared for the moment to show in the lovely tranquil countryside. You’d hardly guess there’d been a world war raging in every corner for years. And what was the good of eating your heart out for something that was out of date, when your only hope was to move with the times, with the person who could move quickest getting there first.’

This felt like a very utilitarian approach to human interaction and the more you read, the more it seems like WW2 has intensified the differences between Anne and her cousin. Alistair baulks at Anne’s descriptively articulated fears that someone will kill Aunt Tessa for her money, and she sharply retorts: “After all the bloodshed you’ve seen in the past five years, I shouldn’t have expected you to turn pale at a little thing like that.” Alistair does not reply to this harsh and abrasive response and instead reflects to himself that:

‘He and Anne were sprung from the same stock, their experience up to the time of the war, allowing for the difference in their sex, had been similar, yet at moments like these they seemed to live in different worlds. She appeared genuinely surprised at his instinctive recoil from her idle words. Yet for years he and she had been risking everything, and for him, at least how much everything was to preserve from violence the people and the traditions they loved and in which they had been reared. During nearly six years of total war he had striven with all the capacity of a sensitive stubborn nature to conceal his own loathing of the ugliness and ferocity that had made up his life during that time.’

I thought this was an interesting sidelight on how the war might have been viewed and it is further intriguing that it is a sentiment which is voiced by a male character. It is the female one who is presented as unfeeling and insensitive. This is not a criticism, but I did find it unusual. It is perhaps worth bearing in mind Anne’s wartime experiences which we learn about in the middle of the story, driving ambulances under very difficult conditions in the Balkans. Perhaps what she has gone through makes her think she cannot or does not want to go back to the way things were. Anne, later, thinks to herself that Alistair is ‘an anachronism in a post-war world […] He’s thinking back in terms of the nineteen-thirties. He’s no more like the sort of man who’s going to possess the future than something out of a museum.’ Her drive is very much on moving forward and doing so successfully and I think the challenge of deciding what to do after the war, is a challenge which is strongly present in the first third of the book. Except Tessa, I would say the other key suspect characters all wonder at some stage in the story how they will survive post-war Britain. The anxiety for several pours off the pages volubly. There is a real sense that the game has changed, there are new rules and that some are worried about being ousted by returning characters and others are worried they don’t fit, that there is no place for them in the new order of things.

Anne’s indifference to the privilege and comfort she was brought up in and can return to, again probably doesn’t help to make her a sympathetic character, as much as you can try to understand her position, as the text contrasts how many other young people who have made it through the war, have returned to bombed out shells for houses. However, the security that she appears to be ungrateful for, is soon to be whipped out from underneath her feet. The security is good old Aunt Tessa. Not very bright, but usually very generous. She is a wealthy widow, with many diamonds and loves to be admired. She enjoys collecting people, such as Lewis Bishop, but this time round she has arguably been collected by him, as a means of getting access to lots of money.

At the start of the mystery, it is written that Alistair did not think Aunt Tessa was ‘one of these clever women, thank God. She just did the obvious thing. He’d met enough clever women during the war to be grateful to her for that.’ Yet, I think this is a thought which comes back to bite him, as she is also the sort of woman who likes to have others think for her and take on all responsibility. But she likes this to the extent that she is comfortable with others acting on her behalf in such a way that the lives of those around her are permanently damaged. She lacks remorse/guilt in the way that Tom and Daisy Buchanan do in The Great Gatsby.

Anne is worried that someday one of her admirers will break her heart or worse cut her throat and Lewis Bishop is that man. We learn early on that Bishop is a blast from Anne’s past and not one she would have ever wanted. It is clear that he has a hold on her, knows something to her discredit, an event which happened during the war, so temporarily Anne is silenced. But he is an adventurer and a scoundrel, so Anne has genuine and reasonable concerns about letting him marry her aunt, not least when it becomes clear he is going to chuck everyone out and take complete control of her finances, (a move Tessa is completely fine with).

Everything comes to a head one stormy night, with the result being some missing diamonds, one very dead Lewis Bishop, one very compromised Anne in terms of the murder (never pick up the gun!), but also in relation to her past, which is now revealed to be murky in some respect, although we do not know just yet what she did. This is an incredibly high-tension scene and a page turner to boot. Nevertheless, reader interest does not flag after this moment, as we see the fallout of what happened. Yes, Anne is inevitably arrested, but what interested me the most was how the other characters react to this. Some back the police’s decision out of fear, but others seem to agree out of a need to twist the knife in, so to speak. Tessa particularly is vocal in her animosity towards her niece, as rather than blame Lewis for any wrongdoing in trying to marry her bigamously, her aggression is very much targeted towards Anne, who she assumes must have loved Lewis and wanted him for herself. It is intriguing that Gilbert does not show what happens once Anne is released. Is there too much damage in the relationship for Tessa and Anne to reconcile?

I think Anne may be one of Gilbert’s more atypical female leads, which is very much seen in her damaging secret. I would say it is quite dramatic for the period it was published in, particularly in a more traditional mystery. It is perhaps more in keeping with a Noir mystery. Sex outside of the marriage features in the secret, but there is more to it which I won’t mention, and I wondered if Gilbert was using this character as a way of including this facet of wartime experience. I wonder how many other mysteries of the same period included this element. Nevertheless, Anne is a morally ambiguous or compromised woman and like Edith Thompson some characters judge her based on her perceived lack of morals, rather than on whether she did commit the murder.

One typical feature of an Arthur Crook investigation, present in this story, is someone calling him to say they want to meet him at his office to tell him something important about the case. Naturally they never make it to him and that also occurs in this book, yet I think Gilbert does something a bit different with this part of the plot, as to what she would normally do, and it adds complexity to the initial murder.

During most of his investigation I did wonder whether Crook was perhaps a little too enigmatic. However, the denouement involves a reconstruction, a mystery genre trope that is not overly used in the Crook mysteries. Again, this gives the story a more traditional vibe. I would say there is a lack of physical clues, though we do get a map included during the ending as part of the reconstruction. This is unusual for the Crook stories generally, which don’t tend to have maps, but also normally traditional mysteries would provide the map sooner in the narrative, so readers could log suspect alibis. Part of the reconstruction includes a script that Crook’s associates use to help them take the place of certain characters who can’t be there – other suspects though also get their dialogue included in this script, although they are presumably choosing their wording of their own free will. I liked this idea, but I felt that the discrepancy-based clues, which reveal the true killer, are crammed into the final 20 or so pages. If this was a truly traditional mystery then I think Arthur Crook’s investigation would have been structured differently, to bring out the pertinent information sooner or in a different way.

When looking up contemporary reviews for this novel I found one by Judge Lynch in The Saturday Review. In 1946 he wrote that the book is ‘good for both sexes, although the masculine taste is indicated.’ I found this a little baffling, as I am not sure why men would like this one more. Tessa has an issue with male favouritism, but I can’t see that making the story appeal more to men. Furthermore, considering other male readership stereotypes, the mystery is not dryly mechanical nor full of pulpy violence. If anyone has any ideas on this do let me know!

If you are a traditional mystery purist you might find this book disappointing, but I found I enjoyed it a lot. It provides interesting perspectives on WW2 and its consequences; it contains scenes of tension and drama, and I am amused by the investigative approach of Arthur Crook and the way people tend to boggle at it. I wouldn’t recommend this as an introduction to Gilbert’s work though. I think there are stronger entries to try which demonstrate the full Arthur Crook experience more extensively such as Death Knocks Three Times (1949). Part of my interest in The Black Stage, (a title which I think makes a nod to the final reconstruction), was contrasting it to the other reads I have had in this series.

Rating: 4.25/5

3 comments

  1. Alistair’s thoughts about Anne as a pin-up girl remind me of something the late comedian Bob Hope used to do on his tours to entertain troops. He would bring out some sexy women and then remark to the men that these sex symbols were “what you’re fighting for.” Of course the (all male) soldiers loved it, but I’ve always wondered how a female combatant would feel about that kind of objectification. Maybe Anne, unlike Alistair, had been fighting for a world that was NOT exactly like the pre-war era–a world that opened up more opportunities for women like her. Odd though that Alistair is portrayed as a sensitive kind of guy, yet has blind spots about women. Preserve me from these male characters who can’t stand “clever women”!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alistair is not the source for the pin up girl quote, that is the other male passenger on the train, but yes he does think the line about wanting to be saved from clever women. The greatest danger for his way of life though is ironically his aunt Tessa, who admires for not being clever, who hands over her finances to a swindler.

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