The Man Who Wasn’t There (Anthony Gilbert)

By Anthony Gilbert

First published: UK, Collins, 1937

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

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.

The set-up is familiar.  It’s The Noose, Strong PoisonSad Cypress, or The Judas Window: the detective riding to the rescue of the wrongly accused.

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.

Gilbert also has chapters called “It Walks by Night“, “The Wheel Spins”, and “The Verdict of You All“, while Chesterton‘s “Wrong Shape” suggests a clue.


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.

Contemporary reviews

Reynolds’s Newspaper (11th April 1937): Jealous husband. threatening divorce action that would ruin professional career of wife’s boy-friend, is found poisoned after dinner. Who did it? Mr. Gilbert makes out well in this tale of crime and passion.

Daily News (Philip Hewitt-Myring, 21st April 1937): MURDERS NEED WRITERS

In the first paragraph of The Man Who Wasn’t There, Mr. Anthony Gilbert dives so neatly and cleanly into his story that the reviewer immediately realises that there lie before him one or two of those rare hours of reading that enable even a critic of detective stories and thrillers to remain relatively sane.

More ingenious books have been written than any by Mr. Gilbert; but I know of no author of this type of tale who is more skilled at making a reasonably good story seem a brilliant one by sheer force of writing and clear perception of his own characters.

The wife who was awaiting trial for the murder of her husband in The Man Who Wasn’t There was not, of course, guilty. The unscrupulous, but human, lawyer Crook and his associates bring home the crime to the real offender without too much time to spare; and, though the plot can be criticised in some of its details, the book as a whole is one of exceptional interest and merit.

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.”

Illustrated London News (22nd May 1937): The Man Who Wasn’t There recalls G. K. Chesterton, whose mystery men so often weren’t there. He made the point that people did not see familiars such as the postman. Anthony Gilbert goes off on another intriguing track. When Mr. Crook, the middle-aged lawyer, took up Marjorie Hyde’s case against the Crown’s capital charge, she was as good as dead, in public opinion. Her husband, who was a borderland eccentric, crazy with suspicions and jealousy, had made her life a torment. They dined alone together every night, and drank a glass of port apiece. Hyde’s was doctored with hyoscin on the fatal evening, and he died within a few minutes. The evidence that nobody who could be suspected had entered the room while they were there was unshakable. Mr. Crook has had his work cut out; but he clears his client.

The Sketch (L. P. Hartley, 9th June 1937): Arthur Crook was a stout, middle- aged, romantic lawyer with a propensity for defending criminals, and Bruce, K.C., a red -headed little Scotsman, was always ready to help with his forensic talent. When Marjorie Hyde, whom as an actress he had vastly admired, was accused of murdering her husband, Mr. Crook roused himself to a splendid effort. His enthusiasm ultimately landed him in hospital with a broken head, but he proved a winner. The murdered man had formed the odd habit of pouring out the port before dinner began. When on the crucial occasion he drank his wine, he was poisoned. Who had put in the poison, and why? Had some outsider slipped in from the shrubbery near by? A twig had been heard to snap… In The Man Who Wasn’t There, Mr. Anthony Gilbert shows the skill of an old hand and all his characters are alive.

Sunday Times: Gifts of ingenuity, style and character drawing.

Scotsman: It is a story for connoisseurs; it belongs in the front rank.

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