“The whole of his past life with Blanche closed up behind him like one of those vanishing roads in the ancient fairy tale. Turn your head and there’s nothing to be seen. Not darkness, not shadows even, just nothing, because until now nothing real has existed.”
There is an unsolved mystery in my city, the disappearance of a young woman. Everybody knows that the friends who saw her last conspired to cover up her death. Even the most cursory Google search by employers or potential dates will reveal that they have been convicted of murder in the court of public opinion. These accusations will follow them until the case is solved…if that ever happens.
If they are guilty, this is something like justice—maybe the only justice the victim and her family will ever receive. But if they are innocent, they are living a nightmare.
This dilemma fascinates me, and must have fascinated Anthony Gilbert as well, since Death Takes a Wife is at least the third book of hers dealing with characters who have been accused, but not convicted, of a crime. How do you carry on with life knowing that everyone you meet believes you’ve gotten away with murder?
Paul French is an ambitious young attorney married to wealthy Blanche, whose jealousy and neediness are undermining the marriage. After breaking a leg, she hires private duty nurse Helen. Paul and Helen are drawn to each other, leading to a romantic encounter that is witnessed by the housekeeper, Mrs. Hoggett. Later that night, Blanche is killed. Paul insists that she shot herself by accident during an argument. An inquest determines that there is not enough evidence to charge anyone with murder, so Paul goes free.
This is where most mysteries would end, but Death Takes a Wife is only beginning. Following the controversial verdict, the three surviving principals scatter, trying to outrun their notoriety. Eventually the scandal dies down, and Paul and Helen begin to think they could still lead normal lives. But the shadow of murder can reemerge at any time, and Paul, Helen, and Mrs. Hoggett are soon under the spotlight once more.
The story is largely told through Helen’s viewpoint, which is both a strength and a weakness. This is an intimate story and Helen provides a very personal perspective. It’s hard not to sympathize with her situation. The downside of this approach, and it’s a big one, is that we know from the start Helen is innocent. That leaves only a few suspects, which is easy on attorney Arthur Crook’s investigation but a bit tough on the reader.
As always with Gilbert, the characters and humor keep things lively.
It seems to me there are two things everybody thinks they can do—write a book and run a shop.
Ruby couldn’t have been a beauty at any stage of her existence, all you could say about the photograph was that she still looked like a toad, but a toad thirty years younger. Another man might have wondered what the young Hoggett had seen in her, but not Arthur Crook. He knew that sort of question ranks with the unsolved mysteries of the world. All the same, he reflected, it was a pity there was no National Health in those days. Chap might have bought himself a pair of spectacles and realized what he was getting.
“It beats me,” said Crook, “how it never seems to occur to the ordinary man or woman that murderers are the same as themselves most of the time, like watching football and helping the kid to sail his boat on the pond of a Saturday, go to the pictures with the missus. There’s just that minute when they’re different…I’d say it was just as easy to love a murderer as anyone else.”
Fundamentally, this is a story about love and marriage. Some of the relationships in the book are good, some are bad; all are deeply felt, and that emotion is experienced by the reader as well. The line between the deep, unconditional love that sustains a marriage and the obsessive love that can destroy it is very thin, and constantly being crossed in unexpected ways as the plot unfolds. Though this may not be the strongest puzzle, Anthony Gilbert always excels at the human element. Death Takes a Wife is no exception.
Gilbert has a strong writing style and characters which make this a much better read than it would have been in feebler hands, as the plot at the end of the day is perhaps a little too simplistic.
Death Takes a Wife (also published as Death Casts a Long Shadow) is available to lucky UK readers as an ebook from The Murder Room. Used copies of Gilbert’s books aren’t always easy to find in the United States, but are well worth the effort.