- By Anthony Gilbert
- First published: UK: Collins, 1934
Mrs Wolfe was rich. Mrs Wolfe was elderly. Mrs Wolfe had two granddaughters and three grandsons, all of whom badly wanted money…
As that nod to Christie suggests, An Old Lady Dies is rather conventional. The ingredients are familiar: a large English family (complete with tree), ruled by a domineering old biddy; her death from morphia; and the arrest of the niece nursing her. Dorothy L. Sayers declared it was “not memorable”, but it is more satisfactory than some of Gilbert’s early works. As in Death in Fancy Dress, Gilbert has escaped from London poverty; the five cousins are clever and sympathetic; and the spinster daughter is not the usual downtrodden, pathetic figure, but comes into her own. It is difficult, however, to take much interest in the whodunit, and the criminal is revealed as soon as Scott Egerton, Gilbert’s MP sleuth, enters, late in the story. The structure is the same as Hercule Poirot’s Christmas or Appointment with Death (gur zheqrere yvrf bhgfvqr gur snzvyl); the power-hungry victim seems a tamer version of the appalling Mrs Boynton, only here her grandchildren refuse to be cowed.
See also Curt Evans’s discussion of the book.
Old Mrs. Wolfe was dying – at last. Nobody seemed really sorry about it. Certainly not her relatives – and legatees. Mrs. Wolfe was wealthy and her periodical indispositions regularly brought her heirs rushing to her bedside. The old lady obviously derived a grim satisfaction from the tragi-comedy, enjoying to the last her sense of power, the will to dominate other people which had become her all-consuming passion. And so, with her various impecunious grandchildren waiting impatiently for the end, the old lady died – not from natural causes, but by treachery. The mystery of her death provides the most unusual detective story. Mr. Anthony Gilbert writes with commendable restraint. Here are no incredible situations, no absurdly sensational thrills, and, strange to say, no police. But for honest, if unorthodox craftsmanship and the ability to keep the reader guessing, Mr. Gilbert is unrivalled.
Times Literary Supplement (17th May 1934):
Not a soul mourned when old Mrs. Wolfe was at last found dead. For years she had used her wealth, and capricious threats of disinheritance, to torment every member of her family. In fact, if ever a woman deserved to be poisoned Mrs. Wolfe deserved a double dose. But the police could not allow themselves to be influenced by such considerations of rough and ready human justice. When, therefore, it appeared fairly certain that a granddaughter named Carol had disposed of the old lady with an injection of morphine, they locked her up and got very busy preparing the path to the scaffold. Luckily for Carol all the other grandchildren believed in her innocence. The first fruits of their efforts to help her were not, however, entirely palatable, for the detective whom they employed proved to his own satisfaction that, although Carol herself might be innocent, her fiancé, Derek, most certainly was not. Equally unwilling to see Derek hang the indefatigable cousins sought the aid of a shrewd member of Parliament, who was able to solve the riddle in a manner that pleased everyone. The plot is worked out with considerable ingenuity.
Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 20th May 1934):
Here is another new Anthony Gilbert, the third within a year, which is rather good going. There are many reasons which may prompt an author to produce books at this rate, ranging from hyper-activity of the thyroid to the grim menace of rates and taxes. The greatest genius is usually attended by a considerable fertility, but, as a rule, it is too much to expect a fresh masterpiece every four months. With the detective story the temptation to over-production is especially dangerous: first, because it is only too easy to shake up the old pieces of the kaleidoscope into what looks something like a new plot, and, secondly, because the public (and this means You!) is still too indulgent to hasty and mechanical writing where mysteries are concerned. This is not to say that An Old Lady Dies shows any noticeable falling-off from the author’s usual standard; in fact, it is quite up to the average, and is actually better put together than The Musical Comedy Crime. But I do not feel that there was any strong and compelling reason for writing it.
Coroners in Fiction We begin with the usual rather complicated family all waiting to step into a dead person’s shoes. The “old lady” is a horrid old soul, who has married beneath her apparently for the sheer fun of tormenting and humiliating the husband and relations dependent upon her. Somebody puts poison into her gruel, and, at an inquest presided over by one of the most scandalously ill-conducted coroners in fact or fiction (and that is saying a good deal), a verdict of murder is brought in against the wrong person. The rest of the family rally round in defence of the accused and argue the thing out at considerable length. Our interest, which flags a little at this point, is quickened by the intervention of a private detective, who sleuths round quite amusingly disguised as a photographer, and finally our friend Mr. Egerton is hauled out of the House of Commons to clear the matter up, and the culprit is forced into confession by an exceedingly ingenious device, which is the best thing in the book. The various characters are quite well distinguished and there are passages of pleasing dialogue, but the book as a whole is a little lacking in zip. As the authors of 1066 and All That would say, it is not memorable.