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Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert by Jerry Dowlen


 

Click here for previous articles by Jerry Dowlen from the Books Monthly Archives

 

ANTHONY GILBERT AND MICHAEL GILBERT

 

The crime fiction authors Anthony Gilbert (1899 – 1973) and Michael Gilbert (1912 – 2006)

 

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert were popular crime fiction writers who shared the same surname.

 

Ah, but in that short introductory sentence I have already hidden an intriguing little mystery! For Anthony Gilbert was not the real name of the person who authored more than fifty full-length whodunit stories during The Golden Age of Crime Fiction. “He” was in fact a “she”: Anthony Gilbert was the pseudonym of Lucy Beatrice Malleson.

 

Malleson had a long and prolific writing career. She also used the pen-name Anne Meredith. Her published books for the Collins Crime Club drew the highest acclaim. Two of her stories were adapted for films in the 1940s and two others were featured in 1959 and 1963 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock’s television series. Malleson was a Londoner, from Hammersmith and Upper Norwood. She became a full-time writer, diversifying into general (non-crime) novels and plays for radio.

 

Michael Gilbert was a distinguished partner in a London legal firm. I have a friend who was once a very junior trainee working for him in Chambers. He fondly described Michael Gilbert as a superb legal practitioner, teacher and mentor. “And we all knew that he had this semi-mischievous sideline: he wrote amusing, but always clever and entertaining mystery stories and spy stories.” That “sideline” would earn Michael Gilbert outstanding praise from crime fiction readers and critics. He started with orthodox murder mystery stories: his first (published 1947) included a diagram of the murder scene. Then came light touch, almost tongue-in-cheek thriller yarns. His professional legal knowledge was often to the fore, and he used a wide range of settings for his stories. He achieved too the rare feat of his short stories – the Petrella stories – being hailed as crime fiction classics.

 

Anthony Gilbert:

The Tragedy at Freyne (1927)

The Case Against Andrew Fane (1931)

Treason in my Breast (1938)

 

One of her earliest published stories ‘The Tragedy at Freyne’ saw the young Lucy Malleson tackle the obligatory between-the-wars country house, locked room, murder mystery. Scott Egerton, the budding Liberal MP, emerges in mid-story as the self-appointed detective. By that time we have met all the obvious suspects: a famous painter has been found dead in his locked bedroom, apparently from a fatal dose of morphine. Murder or suicide? His live-in wife is emotionally estranged from him and seems to have a not-too-secret lover. Topically, as I write this in the centenary year 2014, her apparent lover Captain Dacre is a man haunted by post World War One trauma. Topically, too, bearing in mind a certain high-profile celebrity trial of recent time in the British press, members of the Freyne household seem to be habitual cocaine-takers. (“There are half a hundred illegal ways to get the stuff. Dacre probably knows some secret trafficker. The latest way is to pack it between the boards of playing-cards. There’s a bridge club in London that exists for no other reason.”)

 

The live-in secretary Miss Dennis attracts speculation because of her furtive demeanour. What deadly secret is she concealing? (“Her eyes, crafty and suspicious, turned from one to other of her questioners; her mouth closed like a trap. Behind those narrowed eyes was a mind like Clapham Junction that went all ways at once.”). Other family members, suitors and random guests complete the cast of likely characters for the local police to interrogate. Throw in a tangled web of wills and legacies, debts and blackmails, and there is plenty to tease the reader’s brain before Egerton dramatically traps the murderer. Anthony Gilbert moved into a more inventive genre with ‘The Case Against Andrew Fane’ (1931). A man is innocent of murder, but circumstantial evidence is weighing heavily against him. What should he do? Is he doomed to swing on the gallows or will he find the one mad chance in a million that might enable his never-lose-hope wife to create an escape hatch for him?   

 

It is rather telling how Hilary Fane afterwards reflects upon the outcome of the case: “It was getting the proof that counted. I don’t think I’ve ever had a more tiring job. It was nearly all done underground. It was built up, brick by brick, in the most tedious fashion.”

 

Those same words could surely describe too the methodology of Arthur Crook in tracing and convicting the true villain in Anthony Gilbert’s mystery thriller story ‘Treason in My Breast’ (1938). Crook by name; Crook by nature? It cannot be denied that the anti-hero fictional solicitor Arthur Crook is a man who has no scruples about representing the most unsavoury types of defendants nor bending the law to suit his ends. The opening scenes of ‘Treason in my Breast’ are reminiscent of Hitchcock’s classic suspense thriller film ‘Rear Window’. It is a pre-war period piece of a story when central London residents live in service flats and housewives stay at home all day. A housewife having time on her hands can be most inconvenient to a murderer-abductor because she can happen to look out of her front window and witness the crime taking place – albeit she might not, at the time, appreciate the significance of what she has seen.

 

By the halfway stage of ‘Treason in my Breast’ the reader knows who the murderer is. The suspense relies on the balding, ill-dressed but always persistent Arthur Crook sticking to the murderer’s trail. Here we see the skill and ingenuity of Lucy Beatrice Malleson, alias Anthony Gilbert, as a story-writer. Every time that a dead end in Crook’s investigation has surely been reached, and it seems impossible to think of a single way that the investigation can continue, out comes Crook with another command to his team of spies and sleuths, and a tiny chink of light appears (“If he paid for that hire-car by cheque they’ll have some record.”)

 

Despite his having “an accent that never came out of a university” Crook became very popular with Anthony Gilbert’s readers and was still the mystery solver in the sixty-ninth and last of her full-length crime stories published in 1974, a year after her death. Crook is given to bursts of cynical moralising (“You don’t gamble? So what d’ ye call gettin’ born or getting’ married or findin’ a job?”). He is a shrewd tactician, too (“All we have to do is sit tight and wait. You know the female peewit? She runs around when you’re near her nest trying to make you believe it’s somewhere else. Our man knows we’re close. He’ll panic and you’ll get your evidence handed to you on a dish with parsley round it.”)

 

To read Anthony Gilbert’s stories today in 2014 is a treat because you’ll encounter a sprightly mix of the old and the new. It is delightfully creaky and old-fashioned to find references to Gunga Din or to fountain-pen nibs ordered by the gross. But you can suddenly find yourself reading something written in 1938 that wouldn’t sound out of place today in 2014. How about this from the wily but world-weary Arthur Crook: “Public men can live down their mistakes, bury ‘em under peerages, but chaps like me can’t afford to make mistakes. That’s the real difference between rich and poor.”

 

Michael Gilbert

‘Death Has Deep Roots’ (1951)

‘Shot for Sixpence’ (1956)

 

Michael Gilbert's books will press the nostalgia buttons for present-day readers, too. His debut as a published crime fiction author came immediately after World War Two. In the excellent 'Death Has Deep Roots' (1951) his plot-line drew upon the French Resistance and a wartime betrayal that led to a young French mademoiselle standing in the dock at the Old Bailey, accused of murdering her ex-lover.

I am inclined to think that the best ingredient of a Michael Gilbert book is the authentic description of courtroom process and verbal jousting between barristers, witnesses and the judge during trial. The reader must surely feel that the noose is tightening irrevocably around the neck of Mlle Lamartine as Michael Gilbert puts forceful and eloquent words into the mouth of the prosecuting counsel. The reader knows that defence counsel is spinning out time as craftily as possible, while a team of investigators desperately combs a series of locations in France and England in search of an elusive person from the past whose evidence might turn the case.

The title of the spy story ‘Shot for Sixpence’ (1956) comes from a Tennyson ballad. There is indeed something Gothic-Romantic about the remote mountain locations and castles of Austria and Hungary where Michael Gilbert sets the latter scenes of his Cold War intrigue of bluff, hide-and-seek, honey-trap, imprisonment and interrogation. I’d liken it to a John Buchan chase story, too.

 

Michael Gilbert’s jocular wit and easy-flowing narrative style is never better than in the opening chapters of ‘Shot for Sixpence’. The action begins in London and the dialogue positively crackles as the hero gives the heave-ho to his over-possessive girlfriend, flirts with a potential new one, and sets a successful decoy so that he can slip the clutches of the Secret Service after they have forbidden him to follow a clue across the Channel to Europe.

 

In 1997 the Black Dagger Crime Series decided that ‘Shot for Sixpence’ was a sufficiently good crime classic for them to re-publish. Perhaps they loved delightful Michael Gilbert phrases such as this one, reporting on the hero’s eight o’clock dinner date with a promising young blonde. “Her estimate of the value of her virtue was much higher than mine, so I was back in my Club shortly after eleven.”

 

I give you, then: Gilbert and Gilbert, crime-writers of first class repute. Maybe not as well known a pair as Gilbert and Sullivan, but well worth getting to know, all the same!

Jerry Dowlen
March 2014

 

Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:

 

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...

 


 

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