The Clock in the Hat-Box (Anthony Gilbert)

By Anthony Gilbert

First published: UK, Collins, 1939


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, 8th 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.

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 14th 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.