The Tragedy at Freyne (Anthony Gilbert)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In her 1940 autobiography, Three-a-Penny, Lucy Beatrice Malleson described how she came to call herself Anthony Gilbert. She had already written one thriller, published by Collins: “a complete flop”; the publishers had refused her second book. (In fact, four of the five reviews I have seen of The Man Who Was London, by J. Kilmeny Keith, were positive.) While working as a temporary typist at the University of London (earning 50 shillings a week), she wrote another detective story, which she hoped Collins would publish again.

I was so unsure of myself that I didn’t even know whether it was good of its kind or not. I titled it easily enough, but was perplexed about the signature. I could not damn its chances out of hand by using the first very pseudonymous pseudonym. Anyway, I had decided to take a man’s name this time. I found there were still plenty of people who didn’t believe in women as writers of crime stories. This was before Dorothy Sayers or the author of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd had arrived to head the list of detective authors.

At first, she decided on the pseudonym ‘Michael Scott’, after Sir Walter S.’s “Lay of the Last Minstrel”, only to discover there was already an author of that name.

I thought I would cling to Scott, so I chose the first name Gilbert, which seemed (and seems) to me a sissy-sounding sort of name, and the kind a woman has a right to, if she likes.

But there were three Gilbert Scotts in the telephone book, so that name was out. Finally, she remembered her “idol of the theatre”, actor Gerald du Maurier, played a character called Tony in a play called The Dancers.

Tony then – or rather, Anthony, since Tony was reminiscent of Kiwi, the toney boot polish.

Collins accepted the novel – but wanted publicity material, an interview, and a photograph.

The first of these was easy to manufacture. Who knew anything about Mr. Gilbert? Nobody, not even Mr. Gilbert himself. Eventually he figured as a retiring sort of chap, whose hobbies were breeding Scotch terriers on the Sussex Downs and photographing ancient churches.

Malleson bought a wig, and full beard and moustache from the Army and Navy Stores, and had herself photographed. (Her first two books contain crooks sporting magnificent fake beavers; perhaps that’s where the idea came from.)

Certainly there was little to link up the Lucy her family knew, apple-cheeked, smooth-skinned, wearing rimless pince-nez, with this benevolent Germanic professor in tortoise-shell horners.

All the same, the picture was not destined for publication, the agents pointing out that the publishers are under the impression they have discovered a new, vigorous, young author, who will continue to enchant (or bore) his public for many years, and that to present them with an elderly gentleman with one toe feeling precariously for the rim of the tomb might have unfortunate effects on future contracts.

So that “large, not to say, imposing” picture ended up dominating Malleson’s mantelpiece.

Collins thought nothing of the carefully prepared ‘publicity’. Who, they presumably inquired, is going to be interested in a new author whose acknowledged amusements are dogs and churches? A publisher can go several better than that. And so, in the spring of 1927, this sort of thing appeared in a number of London and Colonial newspapers:

“Since Scott set the fashion with the Waverley novels, books by pseudonymous writers have often been remarkably successful. The latest ‘mystery’ author is Mr. Anthony Gilbert, whose clever first detective novel The Tragedy at Freyne has just been published by Collins. His identity has been closely guarded and the publishers themselves do not know his real name. for a time J. D. Beresford was suspected of having ventured into the detective field, and Archibald Marshall was also credited with its authorship. Meanwhile, connoisseurs of detective stories are trying to fathom the mystery of the suspiciously mature ‘first’ novel which betrays a skilled hand in dramatic situations.

“I should like to suggest that ‘Anthony Gilbert’ conceals the identity of a well-known amateur airman who is already popular as a writer on other themes and has played a fairly prominent part in the political world for many years.” – Cassell’s Weekly

When the second ‘Anthony Gilbert’ book, The Murder of Mrs. Davenport, appeared in 1928, a Canadian paper reported that guesses to her true identity included Hugh Walpole and May Sinclair.

After that, interest in Mr. Gilbert regrettably died down, though he still had an occasional triumph. At the Crime Club luncheon, inaugurated by Foyles, limelight was played on all the authors present, and when Anthony Gilbert rose to his feet there was a roar of laughter all over the room. A young man [Philip Johnson, the journalist and playwright] leaped from an adjacent table.

‘Are you really Anthony Gilbert?’

‘I really am.’

‘You know, when I tell my wife she’ll never believe me. We’ve neither of us ever thought of you as a woman.’

The Tragedy at Freyne is a promising début, and sets the template for Gilbert’s early books: a roman policier rather than a whodunnit, with a liberal splash of melodrama. It is one of Gilbert’s rare country house murders, and one of her even rarer impossible crimes.

Freyne Abbey is the home of Sir Simon Chandos, a deformed artist married to the beautiful, sensitive Catherine. Their house party one weekend includes Catherine’s cousin, Ravenswood (a name out of Scott), who narrates the story; Rosemary St. Claire, Chandos’s ward; two men in love with her: Bannister, a scientific journalist, and Scott Egerton, a rising young politician; Captain Dacre, a shell-shocked neighbour in love with Catherine; and Miss Dennis, an enigmatic, obsessive secretary.

Chandos apparently takes his own life: he is found dead in a locked room, a suicide note by his hand. But Egerton, however, swiftly deduces that Chandos was murdered: the man was left-handed, but the pen that wrote the note was in his right hand.

The business is mixed up with anonymous letters, blackmailers, and sinister bearded strangers. The police arrest Dacre, but his lawyer and friends set out to prove his innocence; they identify a suspect, and engage a private detective to look into her antecedents. The detective adopts a couple of disguises to ferret out the truth.

Freyne is more purple in prose than GIlbert’s later books; characterisation is not deep, but Gilbert handles dramatic situations well, even if they are theatrical: ROT13: na neerfg ba n jrqqvat avtug, naq na vaabprag jbzna zneevrq gb n zheqrere, jub fgnaqf ol uvz ng gur gevny orsber fur svaqf unccvarff, nsgre zhpu zvfhaqrefgnaqvat, jvgu gur zna fur ybirq ohg fpbearq.

The detection is laborious (testing typewriters and the like); gathering evidence to prove a case always seems an anticlimax once we know who, and the riddle has been answered. But Gilbert already shows considerable talent for detective plotting. I suspected X (ROT13: gur bhgfvqre) from the start, but not a double X. The clue of the dog in the night-time is clever, and a few passages (a clutch, a last conversation, a confession and a look of shock) demand to be read again.

The book was comparatively well received. Rose Macaulay praised it; the Liverpool Post said, ‘The deduction is brilliant, the best of its kind since Trent’s Last Case.’ Cassell’s Weekly said it was of that quality that all readers of Mr. Gilbert’s previous novels would readily anticipate; the Glasgow Herald considered it daringly original and compared it with Gaboriau; John o’ London called it a brilliant detective story; the Sunday Times recommended it; the New York Times followed suit; even the Spectator could ‘point no flaw in the chain of events’.

Mr. Gilbert felt that, unlike his poor relation of a year or two back, he had made an auspicious beginning. No doubt the foreign reviews, of which there were several, were equally congratulatory, but unhappily nobody could translate them.


1927 Collins

When Sir Simon Chandos is found poisoned in his library, with a confession in front of him and a phial of morphia tablets on the table at his side, suicide is the obvious deduction. But the discovery of a trivial discrepancy, by one of the guests, turns the suspicion in the direction of murder, and from that slight clue the amateur detective unravels the web of an exceptionally brilliant and cold-blooded plot; and eventually brings the criminal to the gallows.

1927 Dial Press

The suicide of Sir Simon Chandos, owner of Freyne Abbey and “finest man of his generation” (but queer, very queer), came as a shock to the members of the house-party gathered in his picturesque old Norman home. But that shock was as nothing compared with what followed the inevitable investigation! Old houses sometimes have secret passages, and respectable folk only too often keep skeletons in the closet. Was this a suicide or a murder? And if a murder, why? Blackmail possibly, possibly there was a woman in the case. Guesses in plenty are made, and the reader’s is as good as the next man’s. But the solution finally reached, though surprising at the time, is later seen to have been inevitable all along.


NY Times (29th May 1927, 180w): This is an unusually well told mystery tale.

Books (NY Herald Tribune) (Will Cuppy, 5th June 1927, 60w)

Spectator (2nd July 1927, 240w): Sir Simon Chandos is found dead in his locked library, from morphine, and as he is doomed to a lingering death from cancer, and the fact is known, everything points to suicide.  Everything save one little fact, noticed by one of the house-party.  The tracing of the crime to the true criminal is a skilfully woven process, much complicated by three women, Sir Simon’s unfaithful wife, his tragic secretary, and his young ward…  We can point to no flaw in the chain of events.  The book makes good reading.

Times Literary Supplement (7th July 1927): “Great flies have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,” and in this story the principle applies to blackmailers, for blackmail is the mainspring of the plot and keeps several of the characters in precarious funds which they have first to extract from others and then pass on in their turn.  Sir Simon Chandos might very well have been allowed to slip peacefully into the category of suicide had not an observant politician noted that he had apparently written his dying confession with the hand which he could not use for writing at all, and suspicion is rapidly and dramatically canalised so as to flow very strongly in one direction.  The reader, however, if he appreciates the true value of the lack of scratches on the polished floor, will suspect that suspicion.  But even so the evidence will worry him until he gets into the zone of forgeries and perjuries.  Here almost anything becomes possible.  It is all very mysterious and demands – and deserves – close attention on the part of the reader.

Boston Transcript (10th August 1927, 240w): It is a very good tale.  The characters are so interesting that you might read it for them alone, and the murder is softened so that you do not have to lie awake nights shuddering over it.

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