The Body on the Beam (Anthony Gilbert)

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Don’t judge Anthony Gilbert by this one.  It suffers from the same problem as Murder by Experts and The Bell of Death: it’s not a whodunnit.  There is detection, but it’s establishing the victim’s past, finding the suspect, and then proving their guilt.

A policeman doggedly follows leads to establish the “suicide’s” identity and that of the man who ran away with her seven years ago, then abandoned her. Then, when he’s been arrested, Scott Egerton, the series detective, hires a private eye to build a case against the other suspect.

That’s right; “other” suspect.  There are only two candidates – which rather defeats the point of a murder mystery.

In fact, it’s hard to see what the point of the book is.  There’s no ingenuity, and little characterization.  It’s all very much in the line of Freeman Wills Crofts: interviewing witnesses, breaking alibis; there’s even a trip to France.  At least Crofts’ best books are ingenious.

Do people really enjoy this sort of book?

Blurb (UK)

During the spring of last year the police were greatly perplexed by a violent death occurring at No. 39 Menzies Street, a disreputable lodging-house tenanted chiefly by single ladies, one of whom, Florence Penny, was found one morning hanging from a beam in her bedroom.  The first person to take an intelligent interest in a seemingly commonplace tragedy was Inspector Field, and he slowly pieces together the clues in what proves to be a most absorbing mystery.  Mr. Anthony Gilbert has never formulated a more ingenious or enthralling plot, and his characterization is of the vivid type which marked his previous successes.

My review

Contemporary reviews

Western Morning News (P.H., 4th January 1932): CLEVER RAVELLINGS

In The Body on the Beam, Mr. Anthony Gilbert makes full amends for the poorness of his title by the ingenious complications of the story itself. The body of a young girl is found hanging in a third-rate London lodging-house in a not-too-respectable London street. Inspector Field soon discovers that what has been staged to look like suicide is in reality a brutal murder, with practically no clues. The inspector, however, who is of the plodding and persevering type, gradually pieces together such scraps of information he can gather till he gets to the heart of the mystery. This is a clever piece of work.

Edinburgh Evening News (6th January 1932): This story is taken up only to be read right through to the finish, even at the sacrifice of midnight oil. It opens with the discovery of the body of a woman with a past, hung from a beam in her bedroom. The scene is a house tenanted by single ladies whose virtue is somewhat nominal. Inspector Field takes up the case, and arrests the husband of the woman, a man who moves in good social circles. There seems no escape from the strong circumstantial evidence against him until a famous private detective takes up the case and gradually brings another suspect to book, the case culminating in a dramatic interview. The story is well written, and is full of ingenious contrivance, maintaining the high standard of Crime Club mystery narratives.

Daily Herald (Roger Pippett, 7th January 1932): The New Year has dawned most hopefully for thriller fans. Freeman Wills Crofts offers Sudden Death. Anthony Gilbert follows hard on his heels with The Body on the Beam. And John Rhode brings up the rear rattlingly in Mystery at Greycombe Farm.

All in the Fun

As for The Body on the Beam, it will swing ominously before your mind’s eye to the end. Mr. Gilbert lays several traps for the unwary. But that’s all in the fun. The drama of that quiet, cunning opening is vividly done. An easily written and most entertaining yarn. Follow Inspector Field! He has a head on his shoulders…

Sheffield Daily Telegraph (7th January 1932): SUICIDE OR MURDER?

The title of The Body on the Beam would indicate the class of fiction to which it belongs, even if its author, Mr. Anthony Gilbert, were not a well-known and able practitioner in the style. The book opens in a very unsavoury environment, and the women [sic] whose body is found hanging is, in the Victorian phrase, no better than she should be. Did she hang by her own act, or by that of another? The police decide that point and make an arrest, and the cleverest part of the book is that in which the friends of the accused, patiently and with the utmost difficulty, endeavour to establish his innocence and transfer the guilt to another. An ingenious yarn with a fair sprinkling of horrors.

Birmingham Daily Gazette (“Baskerville”, 14th January 1932): Except in detective stories, the majority of murders occur in sordid surroundings. Mr. Anthony Gilbert, in The Body on the Beam, seeks to be true to life rather than to the fashion of fiction. His setting is, indeed, likely to be too sordid for some tastes. The detective work is satisfying and detailed, but has this disadvantage: as soon as one gets really interested in the methods of one detective he rushes us off to another – unofficial – and we hear no more of the first.

Times Literary Supplement (28th January 1932): Careful, thorough and innocent of any straining after sensational effects, this work deserves commendation as a particularly sound piece of detective fiction.  The crime itself is a common if sordid affair—the murder of a street walker in a disreputable London lodging-house—but the subsequent police investigations and the ultimate solution have a distinctive fidelity that is unusually satisfying to the intelligence.  Considerable pains have been taken by the murderer to make it appear that his victim, Fanny Penny, has committed suicide by hanging from a beam in her bedroom, but Detective Inspector Field of Scotland Yard is not long deceived by the faked evidence.  Recognising a case of murder is, however, very different from identifying and capturing the criminal, and the inspector has a long and weary road to travel before he arrests Charles Hobart, the dead woman’s discarded husband.  He has got the wrong man, but can hardly be blamed for this mistake, since the case against Hobart appears to be complete, not only circumstantially but also as regards motive and opportunity.  Fortunately, Hobart has a loyal, shrewd and energetic friend in Scott Egerton, who finds and traps the real criminal in time to avert tragedy, not because his brains are better than those of the official police but because he approaches the problem from a different angle.

The Guardian (16th March 1932): The only difficulty about Travers [in Christopher Bush’s Cut Throat] is that one finds him a little inconceivable. There is nothing inconceivable in either Scott Egerton or Anthony Gethryn [in Philip Macdonald’s Crime Conductor]. They are as clear cut and as credible as Holmes himself, and on each his creator has lavished real care, for the most notable characteristic of both Mr. Macdonald and Mr. Gilbert is their capacity for taking pains…

This tale is only a shade less good than the far less flamboyant The Body on the Beam, by Mr. Gilbert. When Inspector Field finds the dead body of an unfortunate in a wretched accommodation-house in a London by-street it seems only necessary to set the ordinary processes of the law in motion. Clue after clue is picked up, classified, and arranged by Inspector Field till he is led to make a sensational arrest. The victim has no defence except innocence, and it is left to Scott Egerton to prove it. Once again the clues are examined and arranged differently till in a dramatic scene the criminal is unmasked. Mr. Gilbert has taken extraordinary pains to build up the case: his detail is reminiscent of Mr. Crofts, and he has an uncanny faculty of putting the atmosphere across.

The Body on the Beam takes, one would say, first prize. The Crime Conductor is a good “proxime”…

Books (Will Cuppy, 24th April 1932, 180w)

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 24th April 1932, 130w): The story does not move as rapidly as some detective stories, but it has the merit of being logical and very human.

NY Evening Post (Rumana McManis, 7th May 1932, 30w)

Booklist (June 1932)

Boston Transcript (8th June 1932, 150w)

Springfield Republican (3rd July 1932, 100w)