The Clock in the Hat-Box (Anthony Gilbert)

By Anthony Gilbert

First published: UK, Collins, 1939

Rating: 5 out of 5.

When I first read Gilbert (The Bell of Death and Murder by Experts), I was unimpressed.  I was wrong.  She has the cunning of Christie, with a similar genius for true but misleading statements, and excels at sharp pen-and-ink sketches on a par with Allingham (Mrs. Judges the landlady).  Above all, her books are full of life, and Arthur Crook has something of the gusto and cynicism of Sir Henry Merrivale himself.

This is first-rate.  It’s surprisingly dark, with menacing atmosphere and untrustworrthy characters.  The misdirection is titanic, playing on the reader’s knowledge of the genre, and one of its classics.

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Blurb (UK)

Circumstantial evidence was as strong as proof at the trial of Viola Ross.  Everything pointed to the conclusion that this beautiful woman had smothered her wisp of a husband.  But the twelfth juror, Richard Arnold, would not agree…perhaps he knew something which the others didn’t…perhaps he only guessed.  Anyhow, a re-trial was ordered, and Arnold – haunted by the fate of Viola Ross – set out to conduct his own urgent inquiries.  Three attempts on his life did not deter him, but before the end of the story he had learned that the police work more surely than the private individual.  It is as brilliant a book as any that Anthony Gilbert has written, full of ingenuity, character and refreshing humour.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Torquemada, 8 January 1939): KILLERS AND THRILLERS

Anthony Gilbert’s The Clock in the Hatbox starts with the trial of Viola Ross for the murder of her husband.  A re-trial is ordered with what strikes me as unlikely precipitance because one of the jurors, Richard Arnold, stands out for acquittal.  This Arnold is our hero and narrator; he employs the reader’s and the Criminal’s Friend, that sardonic Mr. Crook, to clear Viola; he also takes a hand in this work himself, escaping ingenious death three times in the process.  I do not think that we are given a single chance of “cracking” the case until well after the two hundredth page; then suddenly we exclaim “Pish!” and, referring to a certain detective classic, “Why, this is only So-and-So over again.”  But before the last page is reached, and one criminal has paid the penalty of foolishness, and another has melted into thin air, the author has most thoroughly returned our pishings upon our own heads.  Anthony Gilbert has started the year well by finding new part of our anatomy upon which to administer the final kick.

The Daily Telegraph (D. S. Meldrum, 10th January 1939): An obstinate juror is the leading character in Mr. Anthony Gilbert’s thriller, The Clock in the Hat Box. The re-trial of an attractive woman is ordered, and he sets out to discover the murderer. The result is unexpected, possibly because the author does not play quite fair in the opening chapters, but the book is engrossing to read.

Aberdeen Press and Journal (10th January 1939): The biggest surprise of Anthony Gilbert’s The Clock in the Hatbox comes at the end. Beautiful Viola Ross is accused of murdering her husband. There would have been no suspicion but for a drop of blood on a cushion near the bed – the husband was smothered – and the discovery of the dead man’s alarm clock hidden in his hatbox. Viola was found to have quarrelled with her husband for disinheriting his only son Harry, a free-lance journalist. At the trial one juryman, Richard Arnold, refuses to find her guilty. That means a new trial, and in the meantime Arnold engages Crook, the lawyer, and tries to fix the crime on the son Harry. Queer things begin to happen to Arnold, and then a man brings him fresh evidence and commits suicide. Arnold is a witness to the suicide, and the police arrest him on another charge, which leads to a climax and anti-climax that the reader will enjoy.

The Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 13 January 1939): Mr. Anthony Gilbert has dealt himself a strong hand in The Clock in the Hatbox, for the situation of the man or woman accused of murder to prove whose innocence a sympathiser has to work against time gives always a sense of hurry and excitement. A man has been found dead, his wife is brought to trial, alone one member of the jury refuses to consent to a verdict of guilty. A new trial has to be ordered. The dissenting juryman undertakes to prove someone else may have been guilty. Then follows a series of exciting incidents, culminating in a surprising denouement which has yet another sting of surprise in its tail. Mr. Gilbert, always an expert story-teller, holds the reader’s attention throughout, and if that reader has small chance to discover the truth for himself, that is really the most serious criticism to make.

Manchester Evening News (14th January 1939): A charming woman narrowly escapes conviction for the murder of her husband. One juryman disagrees, and when the case is deferred for re-trial he sets out to prove her innocence. There are three attempts on his life, but in the end it is the police that call the bluff.

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 14 January 1939): DISSENTING JURYMAN

The Clock in the Hat Box, although it presents a series of problems, is primarily a study in criminal psychology.  A woman is tried for the murder of her husband, who is found smothered.  Since a clock has been hidden in a hat box it appears plain that the murderer wished to ensure that he should not be disturbed in his task.  At the trial one juryman out of twelve stands out against the verdict of guilty, and he determines in the interval which must elapse before the new trial can open to discover an alternative murderer.  The book is written in the first person by the dissenting juryman, who describes how several attempts are made on his life in the course of his investigation and how two further murders are done.  The tale is very fairly told.  Mr. Gilbert, whose work has not perhaps always been sufficiently appreciated in the past, has written a thoroughly entertaining story.

Daily Herald (P.E.H., 19th January 1939): In The Clock in the Hatbox Anthony Gilbert neatly conceals the fact that the reader must be his own detective. I can’t tell you why, but see whether the tip puts you on the right road.

Liverpool Daily Post (25th January 1939): Mr. Anthony Gilbert visualises the unlikely situation, in The Clock in the Hat-Box, that a juryman in a murder trial should, in addition from dissenting from the views of the majority, and so forcing a retrial, then set out to prove his point and eventually, despite two attempts on his life, do so. Granted this premise, Mr. Gilbert’s story proves very interesting and is adequately told.