The Vanishing Corpse (Anthony Gilbert)

  • By Anthony Gilbert
  • First published: UK: Collins, 1941; US: Arcadia House, 1941, as She Vanished in the Dawn

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“I can’t think how it is some chaps always find themselves rescuing the young and beautiful from distress,” ponders Arthur Crook, lawyer, “while I always get landed with a red-nosed spinster with about as much S.A. as a fish.”

‘Always’ is a tad premature; in fact, The Vanishing Corpse is the first of Gilbert’s ‘spinster in peril’ stories – and little Laura Verity is indomitable. Fifty and impecunious, she decides to end her life rather than endure an old age of poverty and loneliness. She rents an isolated cottage in the middle of the Sussex woods, where she will end her life after three months. After a terrifying walk through the forest at night, she is relieved to reach the cottage – but her relief turns to dread when she finds herself alone in the dark with a murderer, and a dead girl upstairs… The next morning, when she returns with the police, that corpse has vanished; the police dismiss her as a loony, but Mr Crook believes her.

The Clock in the Hat-Box is more ingenious, but this is the most entertaining of the Crook series so far. Published in the darkest days of World War II, this is a delightfully high-spirited horror-cum-comedy. Collins described it “a story for the times, to defeat the blackout and repel all thought of invasion”, and the “lion-hearted”, undaunted and undeterred, ordinary little woman might have resonated with Britons in the midst of the Blitz and blackouts. We too are in love with Miss Verity. There is a wonderful scene halfway through where Miss Verity gets drunk on cheap wine, and hides in the car of the man she suspects is the murderer; another where she exposes the ‘doctor’ examining her. But Gilbert is not a sentimentalist, and when Miss Verity in turn disappears, we fear the worst.

There is a clever twist at the end, although some reviewers found the ‘motivation’ a letdown; E.R. Punshon complained Gilbert “deliberately removed those elements of logic and of reason which for many readers are an essential part of the detective novel”. Some of the ideas about women’s hats reappear in The Case of the Tea-Cosy’s Aunt. An ingenious place to hide a corpse reappeared in a fellow Detection Club member’s novel that same year.

UK blurb

One would have thought that Laura Verity was the last person that things would happen to: a little grey-haired lady with not much money and no past.  It was through absolutely no fault of her own that she went in peril of her life, and, indeed, but for Arthur Crook’s timely interference would undoubtedly have lost it altogether.  The one thing, however, she was never in danger of losing was her head.  The police would not believe her?  She would prove them wrong.  The reporters would not cease to pester her?  She would stay in bed.  The wine might be poisoned?  She would keep it for Arthur Crook to see.  That car might belong to the murderer?  She would get in it and see where he went.  Someone must know something?  She would question them.  Nothing deterred Miss Verity.  Nothing daunted her.  In the body of this middle-aged spinster beat the heart of a lion.  Anthony Gilbert’s brilliant novel is a story for the times, to defeat the blackout and repel all thought of invasion: a really good, exciting, well-told tale.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 25th January 1941): FERRETING THINGS OUT

Whatever the quality is that distinguishes the new kind of detective story from the old, The Vanishing Corpse undoubtedly possesses it.  You can be lost in it.  Though the mystery is puzzling enough for any expert, there is no putting the book down to discover whether you are clever enough to anticipate the answer.  Anxiety to know the fate of the principal character becomes overwhelming.  She is a “human shrimp”, who leaves her lodgings at Earls Court with the idea of ending her useless existence in a lonely cottage near the seaside.  The corpse she finds in her bed disappears before the police arrive and they refuse to believe her.  This nettles her.  She begins to ferret things out for herself.  Thus it is almost a detective-story without a detective.  In a ferment of determination she decides at once who the murderer is and makes no secret of it.  Without the aid of Crook, the unconventional solicitor who troubles the local police, her efforts would come to rather worse than nothing, but all the same this is the “human shrimp’s” case rather than his.  Mr. Gilbert has added a little more variety to the existence of detective-story readers.

Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 7th February 1941, 60w)

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 4th March 1941): Mr. Anthony Gilbert is a writer of very considerable but very varying powers. Miss Verity, in Mr. Gilbert’s new story, The Vanishing Corpse, is a vivid bit of portraiture. One is always glad to meet again Mr. Crook, the lawyer who has so much to do with the police that he finds it difficult to take them seriously. There is originality and genuine human feeling in the friendless little old lady who, faced with age, poverty, and loneliness, decides to end her life with as little inconvenience to others as possible but who is frankly paralysed with terror at the prospect of being murdered before she has time to complete her arrangements for suicide. The account, too, of her journey through the wood to the cottage and of what she found on arrival is a fine piece of descriptive writing. Indeed, throughout the book the actual narrative will keep the reader tense with interest.  But for the bones of the plot Mr. Gilbert seems to have been content with any aged improbabilities he chanced to think of. We are all familiar with the mysterious corpse first found and then so mysteriously vanishing that the police refuse to believe it was ever there. Mr. Gilbert will even describe the opening of a french window with a penknife, a feat which he must know, if he stopped to think, would be a somewhat remarkable one; and from the final explanation he has deliberately removed those elements of logic and of reason which for many readers are an essential part of the detective novel.

NY Times (Kay Irvin, 28th September 1941, 150w): The tale of middle-aged Laura Verity’s strange adventures begins as a rather whimsical horror story, veers suddenly into humour, and then continues as a straightforward and readable whodunit for the major part of its course.

Sunday Mercury: As creepy and sinister and clever a tale as one would wish to read in a year.

15 thoughts on “The Vanishing Corpse (Anthony Gilbert)

      1. Of the dozen or so I’ve read the top three, in no order, would be The Clock In The Hat Box, Something Nasty In The Woodshed and Death Knocks Three Times. They are scarce.

        Liked by 3 people

  1. I’ve been wary of Gilbert since finding Portrait of a Murderer uninteresting and giving up after maybe 50 pages. Maybe I should check out that hat-box…


    1. Portrait of a Murderer is a standalone and more of a character-driven crime novel than detection. Not representative at all of the Arthur Crook mysteries. Although she liked to mix detection with domestic suspense (like Something Nasty in the Woodshed), but The Clock in the Hatbox is easily her best and gives you exactly what you hope to find in a Golden Age detective novel.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Oh, you should!

      Her Forties detective stories are also clever whodunnits; I remember liking The Mouse Who Wouldn’t Play Ball, The Black Stage, and Death in the Wrong Room.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s