The Man in Button Boots (Anthony Gilbert)


“A diamond millionaire in a Monte Carlo hotel. Trite, of course, but the public doesn’t mind that. All the same ingredients. Who have you picked on for the murderer?”

Julian Marks turns up out of nowhere, owner of the third-biggest diamond in the world, then vanishes from the Hotel Fantastique. Was he done away with by a criminal gang?

This may be the best thing Anthony Gilbert had written to this point. It’s an Edwardian detective story brought up to date with a ‘modern’ Croftsian investigation and ending in a dazzling series of reversals and surprises that even Agatha Christie might applaud.

The description of Marks’s death and its disastrous effect on society – bankruptcies, suicides, gossip and rumour – is clearly a nod to Trent. We soon move to Monte Carlo, favoured locale of so many glamorous E. Phillips Oppenheim thrillers. There are numerous references to that “master of criminal fiction” G.K. Chesterton. A direct mention of ‘The Invisible Man’; the speculation that a gentleman might have played the part of a waiter… The scene in the dark garden recalls ‘The Secret Garden’, ‘The Mirror of the Magistrate’, and ‘The Strange Crime of John Boulnois’; there is a bowl of silver fish, and a fantastic figure seen on a ridge; and inanimate objects (Marks’s pink cap) take on a sinister life of their own. There’s even a suspicious character called Flambeau!

The investigation moves away from the hotel, the suspects, and the intimate, character-led mystery. M’colleague Dead Yesterday was disappointed and bored by the switch from sophisticated detective story to “murky gangland conspiracies” and “muddy huts full of kerosene tanks”. But it’s better than he suggests; it’s an absorbing Realist detective story, “work and inquiry”, methodical, dogged detection in the austere line of Freeman W.

It’s not a whodunit puzzle plot. (Few of Gilbert’s early books are. They’re not until the mid-1940s. What – The Black Stage?) The police detective Dupuy, aided by the clever amateur Latymer, builds up a case against the obvious suspect, questioning jewellers and searching lorries, “following [the suspect’s] tracks in this painstaking manner”. Which may be a Realist trait; whereas Christie suggests lots of possibles, Gilbert is more minimalist. (The character vignettes, however, more recall the ColesDeath of a Millionaire.)

A second pair of investigators – the amateurs Latymer and Montstuart – then try to clear the accused. In fact, it’s The Cask.

But this is Anthony Gilbert. And Rule One: Don’t trust Anthony Gilbert. She is as aware of clichés and conventions as Agatha Christie, and as cunning at using them against the reader. That formidable critic Dorothy L. Sayers praised the “level of double-crossing ingenuity” and the “original and baffling twist”.

Almost everything we have assumed is turned on its head. Znexf uvzfrys fgbyr gur qvnzbaq. Gur zna svefg fhfcrpgrq bs gur pevzr vf thvygl. Gur nqhygrebhf ybire naq gur phpxbyqrq uhfonaq ner abg evinyf ohg nyyvrf. Naq gur nzngrhe fyrhgu vf gur pevzvany znfgrezvaq. Guvf bar V engure rkcrpgrq; gur gvgyr tvirf gur tnzr njnl. Vg’f abg nfgbavfuvat, ohg vg vf nppbzcyvfurq.

There are, I think, no overwhelmingly positive clues, but much of the clueing is clever and subtle; it supports rather than proves guilt. Other clues are too slender. “You recall the scissors found in M. Marks’ pocket?” Dupuy asks. No, I’m damned if I do, the reader replies. It’s a single mention in Ch. X in the middle of a list. Technically it’s fair, but it’s not satisfying. It’s what Carr called “a violet by a mossy stone, half hidden somewhere in the dusky recesses”.  But this is quibbling.

Oh, and I’ve just been enthusiastic about a detective story. This computer will now self-destruct.


Blurb

1934 Collins

The scene of this story is laid in Monte Carlo, where a number of English and American visitors are staying at the Hotel Fantastique. Among them is the man in button boots, who appears something of a mystery to the other guests, and Julian Marks, the well-known diamond merchant, who carries an enormous diamond about with him, on a thin steel chain. On a night of Carnival, Marks is found murdered in a small summer-house in the grounds of the hotel. The motive is presumed to be theft until the discovery of the diamond in an unexpected place causes the French detective, M. Dupuy, to shift his ground and recommence investigations from a fresh angle. Mr. Latymer, the mystery man, gives the police a good deal of unobtrusive assistance, and it is he who, towards the end of the book, outlines the position to the other guests, assuring them that they now have all the necessary facts to discover the murderer. Various speculations arise, but only M. Dupuy actually identifies the criminal and explains the real motive for the crime.


Contemporary reviews

Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 18th November 1934):

Immensely Complicated

The plot of The Man in Button Boots reaches a still higher level of double-crossing ingenuity than that of the Casino case.  It is so immensely complicated that at the end we feel obliged to go back and check up on it to see whether all the complication is really necessary.  But it is; and the author is to be congratulated on giving an original and baffling twist to a story which, in its bare outlines, is fairly familiar.  There are one or two points at which the reader is quite certain to be a good deal cleverer than the detectives, and I think that intuition will lead him to spot the murderer; but, even so, he will have plenty of puzzles on which to exercise his brains.  He had better not read the blurb on the fly-leaf, which gives a good deal of information—most of it inaccurate, but, even so, compromising.

Let him rather concentrate on the story itself, which is written in a curiously precise and almost old-fashioned style, not by any means unattractive, and a great improvement upon the slipshod writing which marred the previous two “Anthony Gilberts”.

Edward Shanks in John O’London’s: Provides a fine chase which I heartily recommend.

Yorkshire Observer: Rivets attention from first to last.

Sat R of Lit (30th March 1935, 40w): Slow motion all the way through, but story is engrossing, Monte Carlo background lively, and end a gasp.

Books (Will Cuppy, 7th April 1935, 160w): Our author’s plot is ingenious, his characters amusing, and his tale readable enough for an off evening.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 14th April 1935, 210w): The story drags a bit in the beginning…  After the disappearance of Marks, the pace is a little more lively, but toward the end the narrative suffers from over-subtlety.  The reader who likes a complete explanation of everything that has happened will find it rather disappointing.


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