The Musical Comedy Crime (Anthony Gilbert)

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.

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