First published: UK, Collins, 1942; published in the US 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):
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.
Sat R of Lit (6th March 1943, 40w):
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 21st March 1943, 120w):
Expert plotting, snappy dialogue and plenty of action and suspense.