The Murder of Mrs. Davenport (Anthony Gilbert)


Rating: 2 out of 5.

Mrs. Davenport was found strangled on (where else?) the sofa. So much for humour. When it is in short supply, one must find it where one can. If Freyne was the template, Davenport is the first of the formulaic Scott Egerton books: prologue with suspects, police investigation and arrest, case for the defence.

Characterisation is confined to the first section. The plot concerns a love quadrangle: Sir Denis Brinsley, a titled but impoverished scientist, is soon to marry the young and exotically beautiful Lucille Tudor – on his part, for love; on hers, for security. She loves the novelist Gilbert Voisey, married to Laura. At a dinner-party, Brinsley encounters an old flame: golden-eyed Helen Davenport, who was tried for poisoning her husband 14 years before. She tries to blackmail Brinsley, who was in love with her then, and may have helped to procure the poison.

This section comes close to the “Crime Queens”: it opens with an elegant dinner party of the wealthy and intelligentsia (some poseurs) in a Hyde Park Corner mansion, described in what Twenties readers thought of as sophisticated writing:

She drifted out of sight of the people in the drawing-room, and leaned her arms on the rail of her balcony. It was one of those still, austere nights of early autumn when Nature seems utterly at peace, and beneath that tranquillity lies the mood of reconsecration; under this velvet darkness the great work of rebirth had already begun.

For a moment Lucille could not speak. She remained staring out at the leafless boughs through whose fragile loveliness the moon peered, like a golden plate hung on a blue wall; there were three or four stars clustered round her, so large that they seemed amazingly near, and out of the west there floated a cloud that looked almost purple against that dark expanse.

It’s self-consciously “literary”, but it is not Gilbert’s mature voice; the Crook books are told in a vivid, racy idiom that sweeps the reader along.

The sophistication stops once the murder occurs. The police investigate, laboriously building a case from circumstantial evidence against Brinsley. They find a green bus ticket in his coat sleeve, and enquire whether he could have caught a bus to Oxford Circus; they wonder whether he could have written the blackmail notes himself, and test his typewriter; they break his alibi; and then they arrest him. In response, Brinsley’s allies decide to clear him, and find the real culprit.

It is sound and competent, but it is a slog. This dogged approach to detection is hardly enthralling, especially when there is little real cleverness. A red herring is waved under our noses for most of the book; but I suspected the real murderer a couple of chapters before the unmasking.

While Davenport was well received, at least one of the critic was frustrated with the humdrum approach. Noting that at one point, Gilbert attributed an idea to Chesterton, The Yorkshire Post wished that Gilbert A. had more of the other Gilbert’s imagination, rather than “such painful regard for detail”.

Police-court news, without the vitalising touch of romance, is merely sordid; only imagination can invest it with glamour. Never does Mr. Gilbert allow his imagination free play; facts control his method.

These are the authentic methods of Scotland Yard, and though Scotland Yard will always furnish ample matter for crude drama, such facts in themselves are not enough. It is the turn of the screw of imagination that makes them live.


Blurb

1928 Collins

On the eve of his marriage to a wealthy society woman, Sir Denis Brinsley is confronted with an incident, passionate and disturbing, from his past, in the person of the beautiful Mrs. Helen Davenport. It transpires that she is being blackmailed, and she demands his help, offering to sell him certain indiscreet letters written fourteen years earlier that will probably prevent his marriage if they are made public. Brinsley refusing on the grounds of inability and disinclination, Mrs. Davenport is shortly afterwards found strangled. Through a network of damning evidence, of conflicting clues, of deliberate treachery, the solution is ultimately reached through the ingenuity and patience of the young politician, Scott Egerton, who solved The Tragedy at Freyne, and who eventually brings a brutal and sordid murder to a logical and amazing conclusion.

1928 Dial Press

Anthony Gilbert established in The Tragedy at Freyne a technique in the writing of detective fiction that was as distinguished as it was effective. With one stride, with his first book, he joined the ranks of A. A. Milne of The Red House Mystery and Philip MacDonald of The Rasp. His new book carries on in the tradition; nothing of your blood and thunder business. We are far from the region of the dime novel. Anthony Gilbert writes well, he is a master of his craft – there is style in his plot as well as in his prose. With a fine balance of character and action he achieves so natural and inevitable an effect of suspense and mystery that after finishing The Murder of Mrs. Davenport one feels like clapping, as after a show, it has all been such first-class entertainment!


Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (29th June 1928): This is an absorbing story but it would not be fair to reveal its plot, which is of the purely detective kind.  There is the usual love story, but no bye-plot.  The interest lies in the ingenuity with which the murderer throws suspicion on the wrong people, by such devices as a ‘bus-ticket slipped into a man’s cuff, and the ingenuity of Egerton in unmasking him.  The writer of such a tale has to steer between the rock of over-obviousness and that of over-subtlety.  Mr. Gilbert certainly escapes the former, but he grazes the latter.  The reader who looks through the book a second time (as he probably will to see the clues he was ass enough to miss) will reflect that the villain hardly seems to have had enough motive for his complicated crimes.  And the heroine is rather more selfish than one expects a heroine to be.

The Sphere (30th June 1928): The Murder of Mrs. Davenport is told quickly, and the series of events is ingenious. But there is no sustained characterisation; and what – in a crime story – is worse, countless small touches are wrong. (One example will suffice. A detective hanging about the Achilles statue in Hyde Park, sees a lady enter her car. The car is outside her house, and her house faces Green Park.) Discrepancies like this irritate a reader. Mr. Gilbert has invented a good plot, but through lack of energy or lack of interest he has not carried it through or left it neat and tidy and shipshape.

Northern Whig (14th July 1928): Mr. Anthony Gilbert’s detective story, The Murder of Mrs. Davenport, is constructed on standardised lines. Mrs. Davenport, a woman with past, was discovered by one of her lovers and a friend of his lying dead in her London flat. It was evident that she had been strangled, and suspicion fell on the scientist, about to marry a young and beautiful girl, from whom she bad been trying to extract money by threatening to send his betrothed some foolish letters he had written her in his green and salad days. The poor fellow was arrested, and it might have gone hard with him but for the interest taken in his case by a brilliant friend, who combined politics – he was an M.P. – with amateur detective work. This Admirable Crichton got on the track the real assassin, and was instrumental in laying him by the heels, though he took a considerable risk in doing so. The liberation of the falsely-accused man followed, and his reunion with the sweetheart whom he imagined to have been alienated from him. Mr. Gilbert throws dust in our eyes very cleverly, and we imagine that very few readers will “spot” the criminal before the author reveals the secret of his identity.

Yorkshire Post (22nd August 1928): A CROOK STORY.

The Murder of Mrs. Davenport, by Anthony Gilbert, is a crook story, perfect in constructive technique but lacking that hint of incredibility which John Buchan, himself a master of the art, considers essential to a good tale of mystery. Police-court news, without the vitalising touch of romance, is merely sordid; only imagination can invest it with glamour. Never does Mr. Gilbert allow his imagination free play; facts control his method.

Helen Davenport, a lady with vivid past, re-enters Sir Denis Brinsley’s life on the eve of his engagement to a lovely heiress. Mrs. Davenport is shortly found murdered, and Sir Denis is accused. With such painful regard for detail is the plot unravelled that a green ‘bus ticket calls for several pages of elucidation. These are the authentic methods of Scotland Yard, and though Scotland Yard will always furnish ample matter for crude drama, such facts in themselves are not enough. It is the turn of the screw of imagination that makes them live.

At the most exciting point in the story Scott Egerton. the aristocratic amateur detective, says to the real criminal: “That’s not original. You’ve borrowed it from G. K. C.” One could wish that Mr. Gilbert had borrowed more freely from G. K. C. and that Scott Egerton himself were more like “The man who knew too much”.

Books (NY Herald Tribune) (Will Cuppy, 2nd September 1928, 120w): Anthony Gilbert is a safe bet pour passer le temps.

Outlook (W.R. Brooks, 5th September 1928, 100w): Not too exciting but plausible and fairly ingenious tale.

Springfield Republican (30th September 1928, 170w)

NY Times (7th October 1928, 200w): Readers who like to puzzle out mysteries for themselves, pitting their wits against those of the detective in the story, will have just cause of complaint against Mr. Gilbert, for he has deliberately withheld from them information which is in the possession of his detective.  Readers of such stories do expect to be given a sporting chance to compete with the author’s detective.

Boston Transcript (17th October 1928, 150w): The plot is well conceived, and for the greater part of the tale, the characters are well sustained.

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