- By Anthony Gilbert
- First published: UK: Collins, 1942; US: Smith & Durrell, 1943, as Death in the Blackout
The last detective story I read before this was William Gore’s Murder Most Artistic, published in 1937, and not reprinted until the boom of eBooks made rarities possible. It was easy to see why that one was forgotten. Despite its artistic background, and some good wit, it was a slog.
Thank goodness, then, for Anthony Gilbert! She’s a lively storyteller, and her books are energetic and funny.
This one isn’t one of her best. It’s briskly told, it’s amusing, it’s clever – all pluses – and the scene at the start where Arthur Crook first meets the absent-minded Tea-Cosy, who thinks he’s been transported through time, is hilarious.
But she lets the cat out of the bag too early. Any normally astute reader should be able to name the killer from the start of Chapter 9.
Knowing Gilbert, I wondered whether she’d deliberately lured the reader into a false sense of suspicion. “Aha, I’ve spotted X! It’s obvious!”
Even then, the clueing is excellent. It’s Carrian clueing – inconsistencies of behaviour, contradictions, unnecessary lies – the sort of subtle stuff which we kick ourselves for not noticing.
Arthur Crook met T. Kersey, nicknamed the Tea-Cosy, for the first time one night when the absent-minded old man tried to get into Crook’s flat by mistake. The Tea-Cosy lived by himself on the floor below and Crook went down with him to investigate the mysterious sound of running water. It was there that Crook’s eyes lit on that incredible, Victorian monstrosity of a hat which belonged to the Tea-Cosy’s aunt. But of Aunt Clara herself there was no sign, though an unopened letter disclosed the fact that she had proposed to call on her worthy nephew that day. Now that was just the kind of baffling circumstance that whetted the appetite of Arthur Crook, who with every story in which he appears makes it more evident that to him Anthony Gilbert has created a major character in detective fiction. The story is a grand one, peopled with rich and varied types, and with a wonderfully strong atmosphere of mystery and well-sustained excitement.
Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 31st October 1942): MURDER TANGLE
Exasperation can be the greatest compliment payable to a detective story, only it must be caused by the author’s skill in putting you off the scent. Anyhow Mr. Anthony Gilbert excites it. The Case of the Tea-Cosy’s Aunt is as deft and cunning a murder tangle as shrewd wits could desire. The tea-cosy is a weevil from the British Museum named T. Kersey, and the nickname is bestowed upon him by Crook, the hearty, loud solicitor, while contemplating a peculiar female hat from which Mr. Kersey’s maiden aunt has separated inexplicably. With an inevitability that academic critics associate with great tragedy the little mystery increases in size, menace and complexity. There should not, a reader may reflect at the end, have been any doubt why the old woman was murdered and who, as Miss Doolittle would say, done her in. But people not excelling in cold-bloodedness will be hurried along so breathlessly by Mr. Gilbert that when the puzzle is most reasonably solved they will gasp with surprise.
The Tatler (18th November 1942): In The Case of the Tea-Cosy’s Aunt, Anthony Gilbert combines macabre atmosphere with sound plot. A semi-blitzed block of Earl’s Court flats is the setting. The aunt whose hat turned up under funny conditions turned out to be more sinister than most are. Mr. Crook’s name is belying, but he is a tough nut and up, as it turns out, to every trick of the trade. Excellent fireside reading – always with the proviso that you do not live alone in an Earl’s Court flat.
New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 5th December 1942, 90w)
The Sketch (L. P. Hartley, 16th December 1942): Murder and the Black-Out.
When X decided to commit a murder at No. 1, Brandon Street, he did not realise that living in a flat in the same house was the renowned private detective, Mr. Arthur Crook. Mr. Crook’s first witness in the case, Mr. T. Kersey, called by Mr. Crook, who liked to be facetious, Tea Cosy, told him that he found himself “at a loss in dealing with the Englishman’s idea of American dialects” – a hit at the breezy Crook, who favoured that mode of speech. Mr. Anthony Gilbert’s story takes place just after the Great Blitz; he makes skilful and creepy use of black-out regulations. Shudders abound in The Case of the Tea- Cosy’s Aunt, and there is at least one moment – when Sigrid leaves the hospital – of almost unbearable excitement. Mr. Gilbert is to be congratulated on the ambiguous glimpses, reminding one of the clues in a cross-word puzzle, that he gives us into the murderer’s mind: they are not really misleading and have, for those who are in the know, the rare quality of dramatic irony.
Spectator (John Fairfield, 1st January 1943, 60w)
The Observer (Maurice Richardson, 10th January 1943): A further instalment of Mr. Anthony Gilbert’s smug, middle-world detective, Mr. Crook. The Case of the Tea-Cosy’s Aunt opens with disappearance of elderly spinster who turns out to have been a virulent blackmailer. A second murder and two or three more attempts. The genuinely sinister atmosphere which prevails in Mr. Crook’s cases is well maintained.
Sat R of Lit (6th March 1943, 40w): Well done.
San Francisco Chronicle (Anthony Boucher, 7th March 1943): Shrewd, vulgar Arthur Crook starts with nothing but a mislaid monstrosity of a hat but proves too much for over-clever killer. Realistic study in middle-class murder, with grotesque London characters, sinister suspense and tricky twists.
Weekly Book Review (Will Cuppy, 14th March 1943, 130w)
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 21st March 1943, 120w): Expert plotting, snappy dialogue and plenty of action and suspense.
Booklist (15th April 1943)
11 thoughts on “The Case of the Tea-Cosy’s Aunt (Anthony Gilbert)”
Sadly, I have never read any Gilbert. As you say this isn’t her best work, is there one you would suggest as a good first one to try to track down and read?
Try The Clock in the Hat-Box, The Mouse Who Wouldn’t Play Ball, and Death Knocks Three Times.
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All Gilbert’s novels have been reprinted by Orion (The Murder Room), and are also available as eBooks.
Thanks. I will try and track some down!
Gilbert is one of my favourites. I’ll see whether I can get a copy of this.
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Which do you think are her best?
Sorry for the late reply, however you have already mentioned two of her best: Death Knocks Three Times and The Clock in the HatBox (which I consider her masterpiece). Recently, I read Death Takes a Wife which though not in the same league is still pretty engaging, esp since there is a very small cast of characters and yet you are never quite sure who the culprit is. Among the Scott Egerton ones, I liked The Musical Comedy Crime.
Have a Happy 2018.
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Happy New Year to you two, Neeru!
I plan to read more Gilbert this year; she’s lively and clever.
I’ll add The Musical Comedy Crime to my list!
I’ve got on my Kindle: Death at 4 Corners, The Man in Button Boots, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Murder Has No Tongue, Night Encounter, An Old Lady Dies, Something Nasty in the Woodshed, A Spy for Mr. Crook, and Treason in My Breast. Are any of those good?