Courtier to Death (Anthony Gilbert)

  • By Anthony Gilbert
  • First published: UK: Collins, 1936; US: Dial Press, 1936, as The Dover Train Mystery.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Réné Tessier, the great French film actor, went to seed after his son threw himself from the Arc de Triomphe. Did he go to pot, too? His death in a seedy London hotel room, on the eve of his comeback, turned out to be connected to drug trafficking. Was Tessier an addict, a dealer, or a vigilante? Was Tessier murdered by the “enemies” who pursued him because he knew too much? And how is his son’s fiancée involved?

Courtier to Death was Anthony Gilbert’s last novel not to feature Arthur Crook; the rambunctious lawyer appeared later that year, in Murder by Experts. Here, the investigators are two policemen: M. Dupuy, wily Sûreté agent (familiar from 1934’s The Man in Button Boots), and dogged Inspector Field, like Hanaud and French teaming up. They are aided by the barrister Glyn, who smartly proves Tessier was murdered, but falling in love, and worrying about the girl, dulls his acumen.

Courtier is not a whodunnit; few of Gilbert’s books were. It is a swiftly moving and elegantly written mystery thriller, keenly observed as ever. Two other bloggers, however, were not impressed; deadyesterday and crossexaminingcrime were disappointed, finding it boring and a wasted opportunity.

That rather reflects the critical division of the 1930s. The Daily Telegraph judged it “first rate”, and Torquemada (Observer) reflected that “if Mr. Gilbert’s original flashes of phrase and modelling of original images make his work, as is sadly suggested by some reviewers, caviare to the General, surely by this time all other ranks must recognise it as very palatable fare”. But Margaret Cole (Daily Herald) found plot and characters “decidedly overstrained”; and Ralph Partridge (New Statesman and Nation) thought it showed “the unkind working of the law of diminishing returns”.

By 1936, the drug / smuggling story had become a sub-genre of the Realist school. The most famous example today is probably Dorothy L. Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise (1933), with its brilliant look inside the advertising industry, but the originator (as so often) was Freeman Wills Crofts, with such titles as The Pit-prop Syndicate (1922) and The Box Office Murders (1929). These are process-oriented books; the chief mystery is HOW the scheme works. Gilbert’s approach is more melodramatic; we never quite find out the drugs are sourced and distributed, and how the gang communicates. Instead, the drug smugglers are a sinister, nebulous organization that seems to have great power on both sides of the Channel.

Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy. Anthony Gilbert has a vivid, pictorial imagination; there is a fine description of London seen from a Soho hotel window by a film producer; the image of Mme Lemaître counting money by candlelight, “like a great black mountain”; the gossiping women on a Paris street; or a forlorn exhumation in a graveyard. When the coffin is opened, there is a startling revelation. Dupuy’s deductions are sound, but some of the information is not shared with the reader beforehand. Certainly, the shaving-brush clue could have been better developed. But it is an adroit addition of two plus two to produce an unexpected four. That is more of a surprise than the predictable ending; I guessed X early on, if only for a paucity of suspects and a certain minimalism of plot. So, too, did Torquemada (Observer): “If the ultimate big surprise finds us not unprepared, the penultimate one is really startling.”


1936 Collins

Eight years ago the name of René Tessier was notorious.  But that was eight years ago.  Now times have changed and the once-celebrated film star has sunk to the demi-monde of drug-addicts and neurotics who frequent the less reputable of the Parisian cafés.  Then at last comes the chance of return to the limelight and the favour of millions.  The brilliant young producer Julian Lane plans to star Tessier in his latest production.  A world-weary old man alights from the boat train and reaches with difficulty an obscure hotel in Soho.  Next morning Tessier is found dead.  Suicide or murder is the query flashed in the headlines of London’s newspapers.  Courtier to Death is an excellent mystery distinguished by clever character drawing and solved in Anthony Gilbert’s usual masterly manner.

Contemporary reviews

Aberdeen Press and Journal (4th February 1936): French Detective Ways

Courtier to Death, by Anthony Gilbert, begins with the death in a shady London hotel of a broken-down French film actor. At first it is taken to be suicide, but one particular points to murder. Pursuit of the murderer takes us across the Channel, to a demonstration of French detective methods, another murder, a disappearance, and suspicions of a drug gang. Back in London, Surete and Scotland Yard working together, the trail is sought out tensely and sympathetically, until the hunt in culminates a surprising “kill”.

Times Literary Supplement (John Everard Gurdon, 22nd February 1936): Eight years ago René Tessier was one of the most famous of film stars, but since then, rumour alleged, the suicide of his only son had driven him to drugs and degradation.  Whether rumour libelled him or not, it was a fact that Tessier had given up acting, and many heads were therefore shaken when Julian Lane invited the old man to take the principal part in the biggest picture he had ever planned.  Lane, however, persisted; Tessier came to London, and the following morning he was found dead in an obscure Bloomsbury hotel.  A clue took Inspector Field to Paris, where he was assisted by Dupuy, a brilliant and ebullient member of the Sûreté.  Bit by bit the two uncovered the mystery behind Tessier’s death, proving that it must be the work of a ring of drug traffickers.  The final solution of the puzzle was found in London, and provided the two detectives with an uncommonly exciting climax.

Observer (Torquemada, 23rd February 1936): Though Mr. Gilbert takes a most melodramatic, if most original, variation on an old theme and gives it to us, in Courtier to Death, in his own fashion of halftones and classic understatement, he has made a much better job of it than would Pater, say, have made of writing The Bad Man from Forty Mile, or any other dime thriller.  If the ultimate big surprise finds us not unprepared, the penultimate one is really startling; if Field is lifeless, it is by contrast with the dynamic and delightful Dupuy; if that pleasant lawyer, Glyn, is a trifle Ricardian (I refer to Julius and not David) he is, after all, suffering from the obtundity of first love.  In fact, if Mr. Gilbert’s original flashes of phrase and modelling of original images make his work, as is sadly suggested by some reviewers, caviare to the General, surely by this time all other ranks must recognise it as very palatable fare.

Daily Herald (Margaret Cole, 27th February 1936): Both these novels are, however, sound and readable pieces of work. Mr Gilbert’s Courtier to Death is rather less so. The murderer was a monster, but an incredibly foolish monster, and the whole plot and characters are decidedly overstrained. Drug-running is a dangerous crime for novelists: it generally has an awful effect on style.

New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 29th February 1936): Courtier to Death and [R. Philmore’s] The Good Books show the unkind working of the law of diminishing returns.  Their authors should either let their inventive faculties lie fallow for a while or try a rotation of crops.

Daily Telegraph: First rate.

NY Times (Kay Irvin, 13th September 1936, 230w): In spite of the changes rung in the background and personnel, this book does not rise above the average level of the drug-traffic theme which has offered plots to so many mystery novelists.

Books (Will Cuppy, 20th September 1936, 130w)

Sat R of Lit (21st November 1936, 40w): Good—but exasperating.

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