First published: UK, Collins, 1937
My last Gilbert, I complained, was conventional. Death at Four Corners (1929) showed a young author using the technique of one of the dominant writers of the day, and producing an average detective story – solid, well-constructed, rather dull – that lacked individuality.
Half a dozen years later, Gilbert rebooted her career with vulgarian lawyer Arthur Crook, bright and cynical as a Cockney sparrow. She had found her voice: lively, vivid, and cheerfully sardonic. And, like Gladys Mitchell, an enthusiasm for experimentation.
One never quite knows what Anthony Gilbert will do.
Sometimes it’s a classic whodunnit in the line of Christie; sometimes the villain is known from the start; sometimes it’s a thriller; and sometimes what appears to be one sort of story is really another in disguise.
One may well call The Man Who Wasn’t There the ultimate in fair play: the detective story without any mystery.
The police have an open-and-shut case against actress Marjorie Hyde. She had motive, means, and opportunity to kill her husband Christopher, a crazed war veteran. But the police didn’t reckon with Arthur Crook.
Halfway through, Gilbert changes tack. Now it’s the story of a murdered Jewish moneylender. One of the possible suspects in Major Hyde’s death was in Rufus Julian’s power. While Crook lies in a coma, his understudies try to prove the man’s guilt.
Every clue they turn up, every deduction they make, they share with the reader. They all point straight to their suspect.
There are no surprises. Their quarry is guilty. The only twists are quite minor: variations on a theme introduced in the opening sonata. (SPOILER Hyde didn’t poison himself to frame his wife; he poisoned his wife’s glass, and the murderer then switched glasses.)
It’s as close to minimalism as the detective story gets.
And it rather goes against the grain when the thumpingly obvious murderer turn out to have done it.
And yet I enjoyed it. Gilbert, as I said, writes well.
Just don’t expect any surprises, mystification, or misdirection. The reader is warned.
Marjorie Hyde, gifted but unsuccessful actress, was unhappily married. Like many members of her profession she was temperamental, and though not beautiful had the Titian colouring that is supposed to make men mad. Her husband was insanely jealous. He learnt that she was frequently in the company of Philip Clare, a barrister and Parliamentary candidate. Christopher threatened to take divorce proceedings that would ruin his rival’s career. The same night he drank his usual glass of after-dinner port and died from hyoscin poisoning. The unravelling of the mystery surrounding his death makes thrilling reading. Anthony Gilbert’s gift for portraying character is seen at its best in this magnificent story of crime and passion.
The Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 14 May 1937): Mr. Anthony Gilbert in his new book The Man Who Wasn’t There tells how Margaret Hyde, an actress, is accused of the murder of her misanthropic husband. It is a little disappointing perhaps that the character who seems marked out from the beginning as the murderer, whose conduct all through is so suspicious, is in fact the actual culprit. But that may be Mr. Gilbert’s cunning. The reader of modern detective novels has grown convinced that the more clear the evidence against any character in the book the more certain is it that in the end that character’s innocence will shine forth like the noonday sun. Mr. Gilbert achieves his success not by producing the least likely person as the bewildering and unexpected culprit, but by piling suspicion upon suspicion high as Olympus, and then mocking our hopeful expectation of surprise by showing those suspicions perfectly well grounded. There is an effective trial scene, even if a High Court judge is occasionally addressed as “Your Honour.”
Sunday Times: Gifts of ingenuity, style and character drawing.
Scotsman: It is a story for connoisseurs; it belongs in the front rank.