- By Anthony Gilbert
- First published: UK: Collins, 1931; US: Dodd Mead, 1931
Do detective readers like boring books? Certainly, I can think of few genre audiences for whom tedium would be a selling point. Yet Gilbert’s American publishers boast that the truth is revealed “after much tedious investigation”, and the first paragraph informs us that the solution was “built up brick by brick, in the most tedious fashion”. Even the investigating policeman is “bored”. Was ever reader in this humour won?
(It makes a nice change, I suppose, from the excited puff writers who talk of Freeman Wills Crofts‘ “swift, dramatic progress … so exciting that it is no easy task to remain really logical”; who tell us John Rhode is exciting; or that Miles Burton’s “plots are tense with criminal conflict and suspense, and move with a celerity which prohibits boredom”. Absorbing they may be, well-constructed, but exciting?)
Anthony Gilbert’s early books can certainly be very tedious. (See Death at Four Corners or The Body on the Beam.) Croftsian policework results in the arrest of the most obvious suspect; barrister Scott Egerton clears him through equally painstaking detection. The models (much superior) are Crofts’s Cask and the Coles’ Brooklyn Murders.
Fortunately, in this case the warning of tedium is false advertising. (The critic of the New York Times, however, thought Gilbert produced a manual of police routine rather than a mystery story.) Andrew Fane is a dreamer – “one of those born lunatics, poetical, senseless, introspective, probably metaphysical as well,” Insp. Nolan snorts disgustedly. But he was chief suspect when his uncle was shot dead. Andrew badly needed money; he was seen leaving the scene furtively; and his fingerprints were on the revolver. The villain is cunningly concealed in plain sight (Gilbert can be as daring as Agatha Christie); the revelation is startling, but the solution is bewildering. I’m not quite sure whether Fane’s murderer acted independently or had an accomplice, or how the murderer benefited. A recap of the crime would be nice.
This is the most tensely exciting detective novel the author of Death at Four Corners has yet done. He plunges the reader into an atmosphere of suspense by asking the direct question – What would you have done? What would you have done if you found yourself, penniless and threatened with five years’ penal servitude for unwitting fraud, face to face with the body of the man who had refused to help you and to whose house you had come to get assistance at all costs? Would you have gone to the police with a romantic tale of a mysterious woman whom, having seen for a few moments, you lost by a trick? Or would you have obliterated your tracks, so far as you knew, and gone quietly back the way you came? Would you have faced certain arrest and the knowledge that you could not prove your innocence and every one would assume your guilt? Or would you have taken the mad chance as Andrew Fane did? Well – what WOULD you have done?
1931 Dodd, Mead (US)
Suppose yourself to be faced with the possibility of five years’ penal servitude for fraud and to be quite penniless. Your only relative is a remote, eccentric idealist, living the life of a hermit in the country. After tapping every other source, you appeal to him for assistance; he takes no notice of your letter. When you go down to see him, you are greeted by a mysterious woman, heavily veiled, who tells you frantically that your uncle has disappeared; and she herself escapes shortly afterwards, by a trick. Five minutes later, you stumble on the body of your uncle, murdered in horrible and grotesque circumstances!
What would you have done? Gone to the police with your incredible story, or tried to cover your tracks and get away? What Andrew Fane did and the methods by which, after much tedious investigation, the truth was revealed, form the nucleus of a very pretty tangle to puzzle the amateur sleuth.
Books (Will Cuppy, 26th July 1931, 120w)
NY Times (F.S. Nugent, 9th August 1931, 150w): If the ideal mystery story depended upon its faithfulness in following every clue, mentioning every step in the investigation, checking every detail, then Mr. Gilbert would have created a masterpiece. Instead, he has produced a manual of police routine… The unmasking of the killer comes as a surprise, but it does not compensate for the tediousness of the rest of the book.
Sat R (H.C. Harwood, 15th August 1931, 20w):
The real stuff.
Sat R of Lit (W.C. Weber, 15th August 1931, 80w):
Bookm (September 1931, 120w): A well-knit plot, adroitly handled.