- By Anthony Gilbert
- First published: UK: Collins, 1941; published in the US as The Mystery of the Woman in Red.
The Woman in Red has a reputation as a minor classic of the suspense genre; four years after its publication, Hollywood filmed it as My Name is Julia Ross, starring Nina Foch as the beleaguered heroine and May Whitty as her sinister employer. But somehow it underwhelms.
Anthony Gilbert repeats the situation of Treason in My Breast (1938): a young woman is ‘gaslit’; her identity is denied, and she is slowly driven mad. Treason was a straightforward detective story; this time, the story is told from the victim’s perspective. Julia Ross becomes secretary-companion to the sinister Mrs. Ponsonby; she is taken to an isolated house in the country, and given a new name; her notice of death is published in the papers; and others are convinced she is mad, so they will not help her. It is effective and chilling, although not much fun.
The climax comes two-thirds through the book, when Julia manages to escape. This is a great relief for the poor male reader’s nerves, but Anthony Gilbert has to restart her story, and get Julia kidnapped again.
The ending doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the early part. Since this is 1941, Nazi spies are at work. The film, more wisely, took the premise, but gave it a new plotline: Mrs. Hughes wants Julia to be her insane son’s bride.
The Woman in Red received mixed reviews. The Sunday Times, the Spectator, and Time praised it as a thriller. However, Ralph Partridge (New Statesman) thought it vastly inferior to The Vanishing Corpse (also 1941), although acknowledged it was “well-written [and] mildly exciting”. The New Yorker thought it “mediocre … not improved by the constant use of the had-I-but-known-it-beforehand technique”. Anthony Boucher (San Francisco Chronicle) enjoyed Arthur Crook, “one of the most interesting modern detectives”, but thought “shifting viewpoints and anticlimactic explanations sap the magic that a Woolrich could have given to the idea”.
This, incidentally, is the third detective story I have read this year in which a young woman, desperate for a job, starts a new job as a secretary, and finds her life or her reason in peril. Freeman Wills Crofts’ Sudden Death (1932) gave Inspector French a domestic, Agatha Christie-style poisoning to solve; C. St. John Sprigg’s Six Queer Things was a hallucinatory thriller about wicked spiritualists.
When Julia Ross rang the bell of the dark forbidding house at 30 Henriques Square, she had made her irrevocable decision. It was too late to retrace her steps, too late to avoid the fateful net that was about to close round her. She could not very well have chosen otherwise. It was two months since she had left Edinburgh to seek work in London, and now all the money she had in the world was two pounds eighteen. An employment agency had sent her there to meet a prospective employer—the strange and sinister Mrs. Ponsonby. On such little things hang our destinies. And so Julia Ross rings the bell and Anthony Gilbert rings up the curtain on a story of truly dramatic suspense.
New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 16th August 1941): Women are beginning to vanish too easily for my liking. It is a nice trick the first time, but in authoresses it becomes a tiresome habit. She Faded Into Air is vastly inferior to Miss White’s earlier version The Lady Vanishes, and The Woman In Red to Anthony Gilbert’s earlier version The Vanishing Lady… Anthony Gilbert’s story is a straightforward bit of kidnapping. Although the lady vanishes from the West End of London we never lose sight of her in the clutches of The Woman in Red. A well-written, mildly exciting thriller.
Spectator: An excellently paced thriller … good to the last drop.
Sunday Times: Anthony Gilbert supplies a most exciting thriller spiced with detection… Friend Crook is in fine form.
Sat R of Lit (18th September 1943, 30w): Superlative villainess dominates suspenseful yarn. Harassed heroine finally escapes sticky end after thrill-packed adventures. Spine-tingler.
New Yorker (9th October 1943, 50w): A mediocre story, not improved by the constant use of the had-I-but-known-it-beforehand technique.
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 10th October 1943, 80w)
San Francisco Chronicle (Anthony Boucher, 10 October 1943): The woman in red is an evil eccentric who hires a girl as secretary, then tries to change her identity and drive her mad. Shifting viewpoints and anticlimactic explanations sap the magic that a Woolrich could have given to the idea. But solid, vulgar Arthur Crook remains one of the most interesting modern detectives.
Time (11th October 1943, 40w): An excellent thriller.
Weekly Book Review (17th October 1943, 130w): Arthur Crook, a plump little lawyer in a brown bowler, solves the mystery after appearing to advantage in a trial for murder and espionage. More than a touch of plush romance lightens the dire proceedings.
Book Week (Elizabeth Bullock, 24th October 1943, 140w)
Booklist (15th December 1943)