The Musical Comedy Crime (Anthony Gilbert)

Rating: 2 out of 5.

As a detective story, The Musical Comedy Crime is unremarkable. A dubious, wig-wearing Major is battered to death with a poker; the murderer is the obvious suspect, so it fails as a whodunit, and the detection is largely routine. The structure – as Neer points out – is the same as The Body on the Beam (or Death at Four Corners and the non-series Case Against Andrew Fane): a policeman methodically hunts for his suspect, interviewing leads and tallying hotel bills; Scott Egerton then clears the accused, and proves another’s guilt.

The title is misleading, as Gilbert admits; The Musical Comedy Crime is the name of a flop in which the suspect’s wife is performing. There is neither glamour nor escapism in Gilbert’s depiction of the stage, only exhaustion, poverty, and disillusionment in dreary lodgings, “perpetually moving from one grey cubicle to another, because she was deprived of all security and of all hope, could perceive for herself no joy in the future and no bliss in the past” (Chapter II).

She hated [the stage], hated the dirty slow trains, the strange lodgings, the fleas you found in other people’s beds, the unwashed windows, the unsatisfactory breakfasts, playing in strange halls and kursaals, feeling like some performing animal, watched and commented on by a lot of factory hands or brainless clerks, knowing in your breast that this was the most you’d ever do, looking and straining ahead and not seeing peace or security anywhere.

Chapter I

Gilbert’s early books are realist novels somewhat in the line of Zola; I can’t say that I enjoy them particularly, but I respect her ambition to leave the country house milieu.


1933 Collins

Major John Hillier, a well-known clubman, is found dead in his flat in Upper Paulton Terrace early one morning in rather peculiar circumstances. The discovery is made by a servant, upon whom a certain amount oof suspicion falls. Inspector Field traces the dead man’s movements on the previous night and learns that, after breaking up a dinner-party in a somewhat unconventional fashion, he travelled some distance to a remote suburban theatre to see a leading lady whom he cannot even identify by sight. Following up certain clues and deductions of his own, Field discovers the reason for this strange course of action, and tracing back the dead man’s history over a number of years, finds himself entangled in a nest of underworld intrigue in England and on the Continent. Dope, blackmail and a crime many years old all play their part in an affair that, starting without sensation, attains universal sensation. The congruent parts of the mystery are finally put together by Field and Scott Egerton, who, entering the case late in its development, is able to supply the final link.

Contemporary reviews

Gloucester Citizen (“Penman”, 16th October 1933): A Mystery Staged and Betrayed

Although some of the scenes are slightly tediously extended, The Musical Comedy Crime, by Anthony Gilbert, for the most part makes very interesting reading, and the author has created some really remarkable characters. In very original manner Mr. Gilbert provides a baffling crime for which several persons in the book might be guilty, but, a little fortunately from the reader’s point of view, instead of allowing his sleuths unravel the mystery first, he permits the murderer to betray himself. True, his detectives are unaware of it, and he causes them to forge link by link a chain of evidence against the criminal in a fascinating and gripping manner. There are many features about the story which commends it, and the fact that it is one the Crime Club series is in itself a very real recommendation.

Gloucestershire Echo (16th October 1933): The Musical Comedy Crime, by Anthony Gilbert, is a book of long-sustained mystery and excitement. The author of Death in Fancy Dress believes in keeping you in suspense, and therein shows his ability and resource. Major John Hillier, a well-known clubman, is found dead in his flat. The discovery is made by a servant, on whom a certain amount of suspicion falls. An inspector traces the dead man’s movements and learns that, after a dinner party, he went to a suburban theatre to see a leading lady. Clue follows clue, and the inspector, in tracing back the Major’s history over some years finds himself in a perfect net of underworld intrigue stretching from England the Continent. It is always an interesting and absorbing story.

Edinburgh Evening News (18th October 1933): This is a very fascinating novel, in which the importance of detail in crime solution is demonstrated. Society was well rid of Major John Hillier. whose personality and education were a cloak for his underworld activities. Hillier was found in his flat with his head battered in, and suspicion falls first on one person and then on another as a Scotland Yard officer proceeds to fill in some of the blanks. Among those to whom the accusing finger points is a Member of Parliament who was indiscreet enough to pay an uninvited visit to the major’s house early in the morning on which Hillier was found dead. Circumstantially. the said M.P. had a good deal to explain away, and publicity or scandal was the last thing he desired. The murdered man’s servant was also under suspicion, but in the end it is a second M.P. who provides the clues that lead to a water-tight charge being preferred against the real murderer, the husband of a third-rate musical comedy actress.

Aberdeen Press and Journal (19th October 1933): A detective story that begins turgidly but opens out into some real good work.

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