First published: UK, Collins, 1929
A corpse in clerical clothing is found on a platform overlooking the sea, near the estate of Sir Gervase Blount, nobleman and clergyman.
The dead man has been shot through the head. For good measure, he is clutching a button; has a livid blue mark round his wrist, and a scar on his chin; and is wearing another man’s boots.
Suspicion falls on Sir Gervase, whose wife the victim blackmailed.
A warning: This is not a country house mystery, despite the title. It’s a Croftsian procedural: conventional, humorless, and something of a trudge.
The police investigate the victim’s rooms; question the landlady, servants, lodgers, constables, and postmen; and build up a case against Sir Gervase. There are long, dense paragraphs of speculation, where the detective laboriously sets out what he thinks happened; since we’re only a third through the novel, he’s almost certainly wrong.
Like The Body on the Beam and Murder by Experts, Gilbert’s plotting is minimalist: one main suspect. Lawyers and private detectives try to prove Blount’s innocence – exactly as in The Cask, or Cole’s Brooklyn Murders.
Other elements feel late Victorian: a noble suspect, who is both a parson and a devoted husband protecting his wife; a Lady’s (innocuous) secret; a dastardly blackmailer; a sinful woman – with a French name; and some social commentary on boarding houses and genteel poverty.
Mike Grost condemns the book for its lack of originality; the solution, he asserts, comes from Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case. I was reminded of a Sherlock Holmes story (“Thor Bridge”).
The occasional burst of fine writing shows that Gilbert could do better.
A sudden ray of sunlight, wan and transitory, smote that smut-laden garden; it kindled the weeds to a momentary beauty, struck a faint illumination from the dusty leaves of the laurels, and lingered for an instant about the stunted bough of the slender, barren cherry-tree.
Some do, though, call for Stella Gibbons to asterisk them.
The September twilight had come down suddenly like a curtain over the luminous sky; already the leaves were falling in soft fugitive showers and somewhere out of the dim branches a robin sang. That sweet and poignant melancholy, that haunts travellers in lands where no robin has ever been heard, and that sings remembrance irrevocably into the heart, struck the impressionable listener to a sudden, anguished pity; he realised that before the thread of suspicion, now lying in Bremner’s fingers, had been wound into the ball of fulfillment they would have reached the heart of tragedy for two, at all events, of the players in the drama.
One passage is surprisingly grimly realistic for the period:
Ambrose remembered certain dreadful nights when his mother had lain dying of cancer – the screams, the smothered moans. They had been appalling to hear, but less so than this silence.
The discovery by Scott Egerton of the body of an unknown man in clerical attire, with a bullet through his head, in the loneliest part of the cliffs at Four Corners, Sir Gervase Blount’s estate, gave rise to the following questions: Who was he, and why was he there? Whose was the button clenched in his left hand? Who was the member of the house-party who recognised him, and why did he keep silence? Who was the mysterious stranger who forced his way into the dead man’s room on the night of his death? Whose was the diamond ear-ring found outside the dead man’s door? Who brought the body down to Four Corners? Follow the clues in this most fascinating detective novel and answer the questions for yourself as you pass from chapter to chapter to the thrilling climax.
Books (NY Herald Tribune) (Will Cuppy, 27th January 1929, 100w): Here’s a meaty, well written and sufficiently scandalous item [with] a clever and unusual conclusion.
NY Times (3rd February 1929, 220w): It is an absorbing story even though the solution of the mystery seems a bit far-fetched.
Springfield Republican (10th February 1929, 140w): Livelier and more mysterious than the author’s previous effort, The Murder of Mrs. Davenport. Surprise after surprise awaits the reader and the plot is not fully revealed until almost the final words.
Times Literary Supplement (7th March 1929): Fortune, it seems, favours the writer of detective fiction; no other class of persons can claim among its friends so many people with logical minds. Mr. Gilbert is no exception. No sooner have the first few pages of his book disclosed what appears to be a murder of the most baffling kind than a young man springs up, his brain overflowing with brilliant deductions. If the murdered man had a button and a piece of cloth in his hand, obviously he was shot—there was a bullet in his brain—during a fight. Since his shoes were far too small for his feet, obviously the body had been disguised after the murder. Since also the scars on his chin were acquired many years ago, obviously—or at any rate probably—he had become clean shaven only recently. And so on. Of course, as these deductions all occur in the first chapter, they are mostly incorrect; only correct enough, that is, to throw the reader on the wrong scent. But for all that there is no denying young Scott Egerton’s exceptional powers of logic, and it is a gracious act of recognition on the part of the author to allow him the two or three final pages of awe-inspiring elucidation. The central situation is neatly contrived, and the various incidents dovetail so that as many people as possible are suspected. But the writing is for the most part undistinguished.
Boston Transcript (6th April 1929, 200w): Death at Four Corners is a good detective story with very minor faults. Its construction is excellent, its situations well worked out and logical, and its characterisation adequate.