The Man Who Was Too Clever (Anthony Gilbert)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The man who was too clever, Gilbert suggests, is the murderer with “a passion for safety”. Unprepared murderers and those who don’t have time or opportunity to cover their tracks get away with it, but once the killer starts to be cautious, he’s lost.

Clever is the last Scott Egerton mystery, and a counterpart to The Murder of Mrs. Davenport (1928). The accused and the victim in both books have the same names and a similar relationship. In Davenport, Denis Brinsley was arrested for the murder of his former mistress Helen Davenport, an obstacle to his marriage; in this case, Denis Paget is arrested for the murder of his estranged wife Helen, an obstacle to his marriage. Gilbert even compares the two cases:

The affair of Mrs. Davenport, a woman rather like Mrs. Paget and living in somewhat similar circumstances, a big, golden, alluring woman that a certain type of man couldn’t resist. And she’d come to a violent death, too, and presumably for the same reason: trying to run her men in double harness.

The structure is similar, too. Yet again, the detectives – a lawyer for the defence, and a private detective – take up detecting to prove the accused’s innocence. The murderer is known halfway through, and the detectives patiently gather evidence.

“We’re doing all we can,” says the lawyer Bruce, “but it’s a slow job. We’ve got to pile up a case, detail by detail, and some of them are very hard to find. And when we’ve got them they’ve got to be proved.”

The murder is minimalist: Denis’s story is that Helen was shot in the heat of a row. Could he have had a brain-storm? (I was reminded of Brian Flynn’s Tread Softly, where the husband claims he strangled his wife in a dream.) Of course, there’s more to this than meets the eye. Helen’s death somehow ties up with a “queer” servant girl and a murder in the past. (Gilbert reuses the faked suicide letter, a device from The Tragedy at Freyne.)

Scott Egerton appears in the last 30 pages to frighten the murderer into giving himself away, Bruce and co. having done the legwork and most of the detection.

Clever is the better of the two. It’s vividly told, almost in the style of the Arthur Crooks. And Bruce, a volatile, cynical, red-haired lawyer, is an early model of Crook. (He assists him in a couple of books, including The Man Who Wasn’t There.) We have his entertaining reflections on how detective writers use watertight alibis to pad out their books, how the criminal supports society, and the impersonality of modern life.

The characters live and breathe more, too. We have Gilbert in pathetic mood: in an early chapter, Paget narrates his marriage to Helen, its destruction by his “odious” disappointed sister, and Helen’s descent into vice. We have Gilbert in romantic mood: she presents her colourful vision of London, with its ex-pantomime fairies in public houses and its Bright Young Things in night-clubs.

And even though the book’s course is predictable, Gilbert kept me reading. This is not my favourite sort of detective story, by any means, but if it must be done this way, Gilbert does it better than most.


1935 Collins

“Be bloody, bold, and resolute” was the advice of the second apparition to Macbeth, and none better was ever given to a murderer.  Had the person responsible for the death of Helen Paget followed it, an innocent man would have been hanged; but a passion for safety brought the real culprit to the gallows.  Mrs. Paget was found shot dead in a private room of the Apsley Hotel, London.  Strong suspicion pointed to Denis Paget, the husband of the dead woman.  The story develops into an enthralling mystery that will grip and fascinate the reader.


Dundee Evening Telegraph (6th July 1935): When a murderer starts to take care he signs his death warrant.

That is the theory that Anthony Gilbert works out in his latest novel The Man Who Was Too Clever, which is the Crime Club recommendation tor July. He treats a murder from an entirely new angle – the building up by a noted K.C. of the defence of a man charged with shooting his wife.

On the face of it, the man’s guilt seems unassailable. But, by persistent inquiries (aided perhaps by too much coincidence) the K.C. lights on a startling possibility. He is convinced that the “passion for safety” will lead him to the real murderer, and he succeeds.

Mr Gilbert knows when to release his surprises and how to maintain the atmosphere of mystery. The Man Who Was Too Clever is the subtle type of mystery story, economical in bodies and blood-spilling, but always entertaining.

Observer (Torquemada, 7th July 1935): The Man Who Was Too Clever, shows Mr. Gilbert at the top of his quite considerable form, and as usual the reader sensitive to style may swim on serenely with no fear of offence in rock or brick.  When we set out, with Aubrey Bruce, K.C., a pleasantly dynamic little Scotsman and a relentless hound, to establish the innocence of the husband of a murdered wife, we have few possible suspects — it is not that kind of a story — but we have to give X a name, and then, a much more difficult job, pin the crime to him.  We succeed under good leadership and in good company.  Mr. Gilbert is an incorrigible maker of really beautiful phrases, especially when in the presence of nature.  There are other phrases of his which are noticeable for other qualities.  Here is the over-cautious: “He talked the almost perfect English of the well-educated Scot.”  Here is the unintentionally over-censorious: “He said he got his fiction that way, and it saved him a subscription to the Times.”  And here is the worryingly cryptic: “All the retired C.I.D. men who publish their reminiscences the following Monday, so as to get a scoop in the Observer first.”

Aberdeen Press and Journal (9th July 1935): Their Different Versions.

The other Crime Club book for July is Anthony Gilbert’s The Man Who Was Too Clever. During a quarrel between husband and wife the woman drops, shot dead, and the man is arrested. The story of the affair is related by various persons, giving various angles of approach and building up the history of the relations between the main characters. Then the author supplies a rather unexpected solution.

Times Literary Supplement (11th July 1935): Helen Paget was shot dead in her hotel bedroom, and it seemed quite certain that her husband was guilty.  The hotel staff found him kneeling by the body with an automatic in his hand.  A chambermaid swore that she had heard the couple violently quarrelling.  Paget himself had to admit that he was visiting his wife after a long separation to ask her to divorce him, as he wished to marry again; this she had stubbornly refused to do, with the result that only her death could gain him his freedom.  Obviously, therefore, Paget stood in greave danger of the scaffold; his defence, too, could hardly have been weaker, for he pleaded loss of memory, and said that he simply did not know what had happened.  This, then, was the apparently hopeless case which Aubrey Bruce, K.C., undertook to defend; it was, however, a case which changed its complexion from the moment that he began his investigation.  He discovered, for example, that the dead woman had been driving herself crazy through drink and drugs; that many men might have reason to desire her death; and that it was possible for an intruder to have been hidden in the bedroom during the quarrel.  Building on this shaky foundation he constructed a defence which ultimately brought the real murderer to book.  A plot of unusual ingenuity.

New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 27th July 1935): The Man Who Was Too Clever belongs to the type of detective novel for which I have never found any justification, however well they may be written.  The author spends half the book enlisting our sympathy for someone falsely accused by the police.   Now I find it impossible to sympathise with anyone who is not only freed conveniently by murder from an ungovernable wife, but is inevitably going to be rewarded for his trials by the hand of the charming daughter of a rich father.  And unless blinded by such sympathy no one could fail to identify the murderer straight off.

Kensington News and West London Times (11th October 1935): The man who was too clever is a new thriller by Anthony Gilbert. The beautiful Mrs Paget, separated for many years from her husband, was found dead in a hotel where he habitually lived, a hotel of the sort that is not too particular in regard to its guests and the company they keep. Denis Paget, her husband, had every reason to wish her dead, for her refusal to let him divorce her in spite of her record, prevented him from obtaining his freedom and marrying again, while it was obviously impossible for him to allow his future wife to be dragged through the courts as a co-respondent if Helen Paget took the initiative. Circumstantial evidence was so black that Denis was arrested. His defence was undertaken by one of those brilliant men who prefer to tackle an apparently hopeless problem. It would not fair to give away the answer to the question: Who killed Mrs Paget? but I can assure everyone that it is a book that is worth reading in order to find the answer. It is extremely clever, very well handled, with none of the forced luck and the far-fetched coincidences on which some stories have to rely. This is a thoroughly good story.

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