“As one man becomes an engineer and another a doctor, so Henry became a husband. It was his living. The knocking off of his various wives when they had served their purpose was part of the routine, and involved no personal dislike or revenge…It was all perfectly simple, and his conscience never gave him a twinge.”
Some men balk at marriage, but not Henry. He’s always been an eager bridegroom. First to Greta…then Beryl…then Flora.
No one is likely to notice the commonplace deaths of insignificant middle-aged women—no one except lawyer Arthur Crook, who collects potential murders. When Sarah enters Henry’s life, it’s up to Crook to prove the truth about Henry’s career of widowhood before it’s too late.
Lady-Killer begins as a gently malicious inverted mystery, a standard but immensely pleasurable Bluebeard story. Strange things happen as the book goes along, however. It never settles down to a single protagonist, keeping the reader off balance by skipping around between Henry, his wives, Crook, and a number of delightful minor characters. The way the ending plays out is also unusual; though lacking the tension of the rest of the novel, it does provide a nice showcase for Crook.
In the early chapters, Gilbert skillfully evokes a world of “respectability” that allows a murderer to flourish unchecked. The victims are sympathetic to a point, but as one disillusioned bride reflects, any pity one feels for those duped by con artists is invariably mingled with the smug satisfaction of knowing “they would never have been caught like that.” Henry’s matrimonial adventures offer a series of windows into the lives of single women in postwar Britain. Their stories are finely rendered, with all their little illusions and pretensions exposed to a merciless light. These portraits also make it clear why a woman might be unsatisfied with the smallness of the life that others deem appropriate for her, why she might risk it all for adventure and romance before it’s too late.
Consider Flora’s stultifying life in a seaside hotel:
It specialized in wealthy widows, but an occasional old bachelor, who had been a gay dog in his youth and was a much sadder dog now, pushed in there and had the time of his life, spinning yarns about the dear departed days when he was a young chap and England was England, and no nonsense about equality and Jack being as good as his master. (The number of elephants, rhinoceroses, hippos, tigers and the more savage breed of horned cattle slaughtered by these old gentlemen would have filled a sizable number of zoos.) […] On the whole, life was all right, except just now and again when a sense of the futility of the whole of her existence swept over her like a tidal wave drowning every scrap of assurance she had contrived to amass.
Surrounded by such artifice, it’s understandable that Henry’s prey would fail to recognize the deadliness of his pretense, even if they manage to spot the pretense itself. Henry’s “radioactive” charm smooths over any rough spots. Though the lady may realize he is putting on a show for her benefit, she cannot help feeling flattered by his attentions and pleased by the jealousy of other women.
What’s interesting about Henry is the absolute impersonality of his work. “A wife was a professional matter,” he believes, “something from which all emotion should be divorced.” When considering his wives, he feels neither guilt nor pleasure at their sufferings. They are simply the tools he uses to achieve a banal middle-class life much like the ones his victims are trying to escape. Indeed, Henry recognizes that his success stems from the very modesty of his ambition.
If you’re a person of no particular importance and your wife is drowned accidentally shortly after marriage—well, it’s a tragedy, and the few who know of it say, ‘Poor chap, what bad luck,’ but they’ve forgotten about it by breakfast the next morning. That’s the murderer’s strength, you know, the fact that people are wrapped up in their own affairs…That’s what’s so difficult for people like us to realize. We’re so tremendously important to ourselves and perhaps to half a dozen other people we don’t appreciate that to the world at large we’ve no individual existence at all.
There is a perverse satisfaction in watching Henry put his well-honed plans into action again and again, only to meet his match in Sarah. She is so more confident and independent than his previous wives that it’s impossible to predict how she will react to Henry. She could end up as his downfall, or merely his latest victim.
In Lady-Killer, Gilbert digs deeply into the ways society stacks the deck against women, only to blame them for being victimized. It’s easy to shake your head at the foolishness of Henry’s early targets, these silly, pitiable ladies. Simple to imagine all the ways you could have escaped. Sarah is a different proposition, a strong person who is certain she can handle any situation. “This is 1950,” she protests, bewildered by her predicament. Sarah soon learns that this isn’t only a struggle with Henry, but with the world she lives in. Though she does almost everything right, it still may not be enough. It is 1950, and that’s just the trouble—but in some ways, 2019 isn’t much better.
All in all, this was a good thriller with the tension becoming unbearable at times.However, I did miss the knock-out punch in the end that a Gilbert mystery has.
Lady-Killer is out of print in the United States and available as an ebook in the UK from the Murder Room.