- By Anthony Gilbert
- First published: UK: Collins, 1933
- Availability: British Library Crime Classics, 2019, introduction by Martin Edwards
The Spider strikes! A master blackmailer has fashionable London in his clutches; his titled victims are committing suicide in droves. The trail leads to Feltham Abbey, whose first owner shot himself during the War, and where a second violent death takes place on the night of a fancy dress ball. Somehow the fascinating Hilary Feltham’s love affairs are mixed up in the black business.
Death in Fancy Dress is the strongest of the early Anthony Gilberts I have read, but by no means is it a conventional detective story. It is more of a comedy of manners with murder. Gilbert’s early books tend to be rather staid procedurals, with grimly realistic character sketches of prostitutes, actresses, and London poverty; here she treats herself to a week in the country, in the company of bright young things, clever adventurers, and self-made millionaires. (Sayers praised the “remarkably well-drawn and sympathetic cast of characters”.) But it isn’t Gilbert’s most focused detective story; the death does not occur until page 129, and the culprit is disclosed 70 pages later. Although Gilbert has limited her scope for bamboozling the reader, she still manages to throw suspicion on all and sundry; everyone from tycoons and their charming sisters to the victim’s valet could conceivably be a blackmailer or worse. While she forces us to look elsewhere, X sailed past my nose, without any indication of guilt troubling the waters. Read and enjoy.
During the last year the Home Office was greatly perplexed by a series of suicides and accidental deaths taking place among two definite sections of the community; on the one hand among men and women of rank and position, and on the other among the more well-to-do professional classes. Their investigations led them to Feltham Abbey, and when suspicion among the authorities was at its height Sir Ralph Feltham himself was found dead in very mysterious circumstances in the abbey grounds during a fancy-dress ball. There are several people who might have reason to wish Feltham out of the way: his cousin Hilary, because she was afraid of him; Arthur Dennis, because he loved Hilary and was jealous of Sir Ralph; Jeremy Freyne for the same reason. The story is told by one of the guests who is present at the abbey at the time, and as blackmail enters into the theme as well as murder, the reader can rely on having full value in this exciting and well-told mystery.
John O’London’s Weekly (10th June 1933)
Times Literary Supplement (15th June 1933):
A sudden wave of suspected blackmail leading to a series of suicides among persons in society and the professional classes were traced to Feltham Abbey, the home of Sir James Nunn, the tenant of Sir Ralph Feltham, a gentleman who had all the popular acquisitions of the villain, such as personal magnetism and bravery. Hilary Feltham, Sir Ralph’s cousin, attractive, but rather a minx, was engaged to Arthur Dennis, of the Foreign Office, but she suddenly announced that she was going to marry Sir Ralph, which caused a great deal of heartburning at the abbey, where not the least of those affected was Jeremy Freyne, who had been fond of her for some years. Sir Ralph, however, was found dead in a strange manner during a fancy dress ball at the abbey, and there are plenty of likely characters on whom the reader can try to fix the blame. The story rather suffers from lack of action.
Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 2nd July 1933):
Death in Fancy Dress has at least one uncommon merit. It contrives to persuade us that something really serious and unpleasant is taking place at Feltham Abbey. So often in a detective story trivial irregularities like blackmail and murder seem scarcely to ruffle the placid current of domestic affairs, and the only person who displays any genuine excitement is the detective. Here, the atmosphere of suspense and uneasiness really does pervade the household. Setting aside the obvious “bad-hat” of the family, who is earmarked for trouble in any case, we are invited to select a murderer and society blackmailer from among a remarkably well-drawn and sympathetic cast of characters. The choice is difficult (perhaps the blackmailer is made a little too sympathetic for absolute fairness), and the cleverest thing in the book is the way in which the heroine’s two lovers are played off against one another to the confusion of the reader’s critical judgement. The writing is, on the whole, so good that I am inclined to lay the one or two syntactical howlers to the charge of the printer.