- By Anthony Gilbert
- First published: UK: Collins, 1944; US: Smith & Durrell, 1945
- Also published as Murder is Cheap, Bantam, 1949
The Scarlet Button begins (deceptively?) like an inverted novel. Kenneth Jardine, a nerve-ridden young pilot, visits the spider-like blackmail James Chigwell; we leap over an asterisk; Chigwell is dead, his brains battered in. But did Kenneth kill him? He conceals his visit; he has blood on his coat and on his stick. The police soon arrest Rupert Burke, a civil servant, who was one of Chigwell’s victims, but release him when Kenneth steps forward to clear him. When Kenneth is arrested, his barmaid friend, Bess Carter, calls in lawyer Arthur Crook.
Button is lively and entertaining, but (as Anthony Boucher remarked) the plot is transparent. Gilbert effectively gives us a whodunnit without any suspects bar one.
Anthony Gilbert’s approach to the whodunnit was idiosyncratic; in many of her books, the question simply doesn’t arise. The Scott Egerton books of the 1920s, her first series, were Croftsian accused-defending, alibi-busting, and evidence-gathering stories on the line of The Cask (or the Coles’ Brooklyn Murders). In most of them, we discover WHO halfway through, at the same time as the sleuth.
Likewise, the early Crooks were detective thrillers or suspense novels, in which WHO was no mystery. (Two of them, though, had surprise solutions. We won’t say which. And Murder by Experts, the lawyer’s début, might be better than I remember it. Certainly, Nicholas Blake adored it.)
But by the mid-1940s, Gilbert had begun to experiment with the puzzle plot. Dear Dead Woman (1940) was a tentative first step, even if the suspects are too few and the ‘Who’ obvious. The angular Case of the Tea-Cosy’s Aunt (1942), tangled and unravelled almost on one night, is subtly clued, but lets the cat out of the bag too soon. He Came by Night (1944), with its aristocratic family and curse, commits to the whodunnit, and she would score definite successes in the form with The Black Stage (1945) and Death in the Wrong Room (1947). A decade later, And Death Came Too (1956) is firmly in the Agatha Christie vein.
In The Scarlet Button, Gilbert tries to pull off a surprise solution, but fails. Her ploy here is an old one, used by Christie in one of her earliest works: ROT13 “pyrnevat” gur zheqrere irel rneyl va gur obbx ol neerfgvat uvz, gura cerfragvat uvz jvgu na nyvov. But the murderer is still the only plausible suspect in the book. Gilbert keeps the murderer in the limelight; there are lots of passages that obviously have a double meaning (the radio, the bar mirror); and we aren’t really given any alternatives. Her attempt to wave a red herring under our nose doesn’t come off, a) because the character is very minor until late in the book, b) because we’ve already smelt guilt on X.
Still, the clueing is clever – the lovely touch, for instance, of leaving the letter on the mat rather than in the letter-box ROT13 fubjf K xarj vg jnf tbvat gb or sbhaq STOP; it’s worthy of Carr.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is Mr. Posselthwaite’s secret. His interview with the M.P. halfway through the book is a comic highpoint.
James Chigwell was a blackmailer, a human spider who fattened on the blood of other men, on their misfortunes, on their mistakes. But retribution came to Chigwell. One of his victims at last rebelled against his devilish iniquity and bludgeoned him to death. But who among Chigwell’s many victims had with the final courage of despair summoned up the resolution to slay his tormentor? The Scarlet Button is at once grim and entertaining, an excellent and unusual detective mystery, featuring, of course, the celebrated Arthur Crook.
The Sphere (Vernon Fane, 25th November 1944): I must admit that I am strongly prejudiced in favour of Mr. Anthony Gilbert’s new book, because it is one of those crime stories in which the murderer makes an appearance or two under that very title, has a drink at the pub, chats to a prospective victim and is never identified but as “The Murderer”. It is a good trick if you know how to play it, and it is also a difficult one to do without what whodunit purists would regard as cheating. After I had finished the book, I re-read several earlier passages to make sure, in my carping way, that there had been no unfair clue-dodging, but all was well.
The Scarlet Button is a satisfactory story in other respects, with good dialogue, a worthy victim for at least the first murder and a pleasantly-human treatment of domestic scenes. As I heard a lady novelist say reluctantly of another lady novelist one evening, “You have to admire the way ‘X’ handles her crowds.” Mr. Gilbert handles his pretty well too. and what his book lacks in excitement it makes up in ingenuity.
The Observer (Maurice Richardson, 7th January 1945): Mr. Anthony Gilbert has, like Mr. Wardle, a very fair notion of keeping it up. In The Scarlet Button, Crook springs a long-delayed trap on a paranoid hysteric who runs amok after murdering a blackmailer. A little forced, perhaps, but above average.
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 30th September 1945, 180w)
San Francisco Chronicle (Anthony Boucher, 30th September 1945): Bludgeoning of spidery blackmailer brings Arthur Crook to defence of accused RAF veteran. Transparent mystery, excessive (if amusing) padding and unusual feebleness of Crook’s efforts add up to very minor Gilbert – but still enjoyable to fans who value the author’s quietly satiric manner.
Weekly Book Review (Will Cuppy, 30th September 1945, 230w): Arthur Crook, fairly tough and sometimes amusing lawyer, nabs his man with his accustomed skill in this readable tale of wickedness… Whether or not Anthony Gilbert writes with tongue in cheek, as we have long suspected, you’ll find this a satisfactory mixture of dark deeds, smart sleuthing and creepy atmosphere, with emphasis mostly on that perilous commodity, suspense.
New Repub (8th October 1945, 60w): A skilful, exciting and unusual job.
Sat R of Lit (27th October 1945, 30w): Best of the Crook tales to date. Well-plotted, baffling, suspenseful, and reasonably fast-going.
Springfield Republican (11th November 1945, 300w)
Booklist (15th January 1946)