Murder by Experts (Anthony Gilbert)

By Anthony Gilbert

First published: UK, Collins, 1936; US, Dial Press, 1937

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Gilbert has hit on a “new technique”: convince the reader that this is a mediocre work, SPOILER bring in a very clever false solution on the Ackroyd line and convince the reader, then accuse another person, who is the disappointing solution in disguise, thereby making it much more satisfying! The trouble is that such a technique, while undoubtedly clever, rather spoils the reader’s enjoyment in the stretch between the murder and the solution, when he is convinced that the author has lost her way. The book’s opening is stylish in the MarshAllingham vein, but rather more hysterical. We are led to expect a nice, tight country house puzzle with the murder of a collector of Chinoiserie. This plot is forgotten about in the middle section as the Watson unearths the rather dubious past of the girl whom he loves and who has been arrested for the murder, and is led onto the trail of an old lag who served a sentence for fraud. The reader groans and clutches his head in agony, remembering with horror The Bell of Death, and is convinced that the book has committed the unforgivable sin of turning into a thriller halfway through, nearly always a sign that the author’s skill and imagination have run out, and is the literary equivalent of marketing goods under a false name (or fraud). Fortunately Gilbert manages to rescue the situation, but one does wish that the detective story had been more to the fore.

Blurb (UK)

Fanny Price, a beautiful adventuress, Graham, a dealer in curios, and Curteis, who tells the story, visit the country home of Sampson Rubenstein to see his collection of Chinese antiquities.  Fanny is graham’s mistress, Curteis is in love with her, and Lal, Rubenstein’s wife, is madly jealous of her.  After a scene between Fanny and Lal, Rubenstein motors Fanny to the station to catch the London train, and does not return.  Later his car is found at the foot of the cliffs, buried under a fall of rock.  But a few days later, when the Chinese room is forced open, Rubenstein is found stabbed to death there.  Murder by Experts is a most ingenious story, brilliantly narrated.

Blurb (US)

A detective story by the author of “Death at Four Corners” and “The Dover Train Mystery.”  “Murder by Experts” tells of the murder of a famous British art collector in a locked room in his country house.  He was supposed to have taken a young woman to the train, and his car is found at the bottom of a cliff.  Naturally the police expect to find his body there as well, but they do not, and a week or more later he is found stabbed to death in the room in his own house.

My review

Contemporary reviews

Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 12th June 1936, 240w): Murder by Experts has everything—atmosphere and colour, engaging chapter-headings, originality of plot, good dialogue, varied and convincing characters, a brilliant double twist at the end, and a general air of distinction.  It must be one of the very best novels that the Crime Club has produced.

Daily Herald (18th June 1936): How three people visited the home of a collector of antiques. And how. a few days later, their host is found dead. Thrilling.

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 20 June 1936): Murder by Experts is not by any means all that it should be, in spite of Anthony Gilbert’s consummate dexterity in arranging her battery of evidence to fire in either direction required until the last few pages.  There are long stretches in the middle that are destined to be skipped by the experienced reader as the mere unravelling of an unnecessarily twisted skein of previous history—only Mr. Wills Crofts can do such tedious work well, and he can only do it because he loves it so.  The virtue of the story lies in the neat crime itself—an elderly art connoisseur drives an adventuress to catch a train at a country station and is never seen again alive or dead for several weeks—and the double bluff solution.

Yorkshire Post (Garfield Howe, 1st July 1936): CRIME AND CHARACTER: How Dialogue Helps the Plot

Here is a batch of well written crime stories. I am not so sure that the plots are first-class, or that the detective work is of the highest order; but good characterisation and dialogue and a sense of style go far towards covering up loose ends and (to mix metaphors) making the whole concoction palatable.

Certainly Mr. Anthony Gilbert has little to learn from the pukka novelist: I almost suspect him of being one under another name. With no apparent effort he creates an intriguing background – Rubenstein. the devoted art dealer, and his seaside house, where he communes with his treasures in the locked gallery; Lal, his Jealous Spanish wife; the beautiful, dashing Fanny Price, who holds all men in thrall, including the admirable Curteis. who tells the story and believes in her through all manner of evil report; Crook, his fat legal ally; Parkinson, the immaculate secretary – and others.

This is a novel without police (except for one sinister figure), and the detection is limited to the persevering but not very skilful efforts of Mr. Curteis; but the plot is fresh, ingenious and entertaining, so why be fussy about details? And Mr. Gilbert has pulled off a record feat in the way of surprise endings.

Times Literary Supplement (Caldwell Harpur, 4 July 1936): Fanny was a beautiful adventuress of 30.  Curteis, who tells the story, was a returned Colonial of 48, so much in love with Fanny that she occupies several times more space in the story than any of the three victims or the other suspects.  Fanny was the first suspect; for one victim, Rubenstein, was a collector of Chinese curios, and Fanny was an expert on these.  Hence, an hour before his disappearance, he had taken her out in his car, infuriating his Spanish wife.  The wife was also suspect; so was Parkinson the secretary; so was Graham the dealer, Fanny’s employer.  They found a corpse mangled by the sea, and buried it as Rubenstein’s, but six weeks later they found the real corpse in Rubenstein’s locked museum.  Curteis, eager to free Fanny from gaol, delved into her past and into other pasts, and was nearly proved guilty himself.  Another suspect left a confession 3,500 words long, but it was a forgery; the expert murderer had typed it in half an hour.  Fanny must have been to some extent an accessory after the fact, but Curteis does not much mind that.

The Kensington News and West London Times (17th July 1936): Mr. Anthony Gilbert’s latest story is called Murder by Experts, and is a Crime Club book, so you can be sure that it will be worth reading. Certainly the experts are good at their job. A collector of Chinese curios and antiques secures a lovely coat, so beautiful that at the sale the collectors’ mouths water and they go into raptures on its beauty. And then the man who secures it is murdered – murdered in his hermetically sealed and locked gallery when he was last seen taking Fanny Price, the beautiful, mysterious and presumably immoral Fanny, to the station on a night of thick fog with no time in which to catch the fast train to town. The story is excessively ingenious. It suffers a little perhaps from being told in the first person by one Curteis, a retired gentleman from the East, who falls in love with Fanny, who would have made him a most unsuitable wife! It is his frantic endeavour to prove that Fanny is innocent of complicity in the murder, for which she is arrested as being the most likely suspect, that brings the story to its end by the discovery of the murderer. It is a breath-taking tale with adventure following adventure. I am bound to admit that Curteis is far less of the clumsy amateur who wilfully sticks his head into open danger than most people. He frequently carries a revolver and also remembers to tell some one sensible where he is likely to be found. It would not be fair to give away one of the most ingenious disguises; but it is ingenious, and took me in as much as it took in Mr. Curteis. In conclusion, I may mention that Mr. Gilbert is a Kensington resident and that it is pleasant to have part of the book laid in a square which you may or may not recognise.

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 17th July 1936): A good beginning is half the battle, says the old proverb, but does that apply to novels? More especially, does it apply to detective novels? A good beginning there does indeed lure the reader on, put him in the receptive mood that is so important a feature in the collaboration with the author whereon success depends – for the reader’s share in that success is as great as the author’s, – but it is also apt to lead him to expect an end more brilliant still, and if that expectation is disappointed, then he is tempted to be unjust, to forget his earlier delight and remember only his later disappointment in a conclusion that in another mood would have amply satisfied him.

It seems Mr. Anthony Gilbert’s misfortune thus to start magnificently and end upon a note less brilliant. Difficult to praise too highly the beginning of Murder by Experts. The opening scene in the auction-room, where the little Jew is shown helpless in the grip of his longing for the gorgeous Chinese robe about to be sold, the introduction into this scene of half a dozen clearly marked, strongly contrasted characters – the lovely, unscrupulous adventuress; the narrator of the story, clear-sightedly aware of his infatuation for her but none the less hugging it to him; the rival collector who yet puts money first; the little Jew’s passionate Spanish wife, and her dark, scowling maid, – all that is most excellent. Then comes the disappearance of Jew and adventuress, the obvious explanation so entirely wrong, and the startling sequel. Up to this point the book is memorable, and perhaps it is chiefly the high expectations aroused that make one conscious of a certain falling off in the tension in the middle part and at the end of a feeling that the culprit is produced a little too easily, too much as the conjurer produces the rabbit from his hat, arbitrarily, not logically.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 9th May 1937, 120w): The author may be an expert in both art and crime, but he has a great deal to learn about writing.  In the first place, his story drags along at a pace not at all suited to this type of fiction, and in the second place, his writing is so confused, particularly when it comes to the handling of personal pronouns, that it is often nearly impossible to guess what he is driving at.

Morning Post: Here is as good a detective story as any one could wish to read.  It looks like a winner from the start.