“You see, Mrs. Watson, fear is a wild animal and during these last years he has been unleashed and has roamed through the world, biting and infecting.”
Though thousands of people see the advertisement, only two take special notice. To Emily Watson, it seems like exactly what she needs: a lovely home available for a woman of refinement, surrounded by a peaceful forest. Emily’s accommodating nature has led her to be taken advantage of by a sponging nephew and “temporary” roommate who won’t be dislodged. A cottage in the woods could be the refuge she is looking for.
To Arthur Crook, it looks like a murder waiting to happen. In her haste to escape a bad situation at home, Emily may be rushing headlong toward something even worse.
Die in the Dark is an expert work of suspense that also provides a witty, finely detailed portrait of middle-class life in postwar England. Anthony Gilbert is the poet laureate of respectable ladies who are no longer young, and Emily is a prime example. At times she’s so silly and trusting you could shake her, even as it’s also made clear that her sheltered life has not fitted her for the dangerous situation she now finds herself in.
Much to the disgust of her nephew Desmond (an obvious wrong ‘un whose postwar plan is to “Live, just live!”), Emily joyfully fills her suburban villa, Kozicot, with chintz and ruffles. Her biggest worry is whether a new hat is too flashy or an evening dress is too youthful. Her late husband, the awful-sounding Albert, has left her comfortable but careful.
Slowly, threats chip away at Emily’s cozy life. There are Desmond’s debts, which seem never-ending. Her chirpy friend Dossie moves in and shows no sign of leaving. (Emily tries to fend off her approach with “the fascinated horror of someone who sees a tidal wave traveling straight towards her but can’t really believe she’s going to be drowned.”) Soon the matter moves beyond mere inconvenience. A stray letter here, a snatch of overheard conversation there—it all adds up. Emily becomes convinced she is in danger, though she is unsure what to do about it. The house in the wood is like an answer to her prayers.
When Emily finds herself caught between two possible disasters, she will need to be able to stand on her own two feet and rise to the occasion for the first time in her life.
I must keep cool. I’m imagining. This is 1947, when such things don’t happen. Why, it’s sheer Victorian melodrama. But here she made the discovery all women in danger are bound to make some time or another, that melodrama isn’t peculiar to the Victorian era. It belongs to no time and affects no one class of the community. This isn’t Chicago, you remarked to your neighbors when one of the Sunday papers featured some particularly horrible atrocity—just as though Chicago were like hell, a state belonging to some other phase of living, not a place you could visit in the same way you visited London or York. People don’t do those things in a civilized age, you told yourself and your friends, and then you opened your paper and read of some frightful tale of ill-treatment of a child or some woman tortured in marriage. And perhaps one day people would be talking just that way because of some body that had been found—of some woman wrongfully imprisoned in an asylum, and this time they wouldn’t be able to say: This sort of thing doesn’t happen in one’s own circle, because the woman would be Emily Watson of Southwood, owner of a nice modern villa called Kozicot, and what happened to Emily Watson of Southwood might happen to Mrs. Smith of Kozicot, Epsom, or Brighton or Eastbourne.
Anthony Gilbert’s greatest strength is her ability to size up characters in a clear-eyed fashion. No one is entirely sentimentalized or demonized. Dossie Brett, for instance, is intolerable when viewed from the outside: her nosiness, her gentle yet relentless cadging, her habit of coyly referring to herself as a young girl even as she barrels toward forty. There is also something pitiable about Dossie’s circumstances, however. A boisterous, plain-looking woman who’s only getting older, Dossie is alone in the world. She performed responsible work during the war, but now that the men have returned, she is back in Southwood living on an ever-shrinking private income. (Her frequent cries of poverty irk the reader, and the author, who snidely notes that most “poor girls” do not have lawyers managing their investments.)
Make no mistake, Dossie’s over-involvement in Emily’s life and the investigation of her disappearance do not spring from noble motives. They give her something to do, however, a way to use her intelligence, and a connection to other people—things that have been sorely missing in her life since the war. We come, if not to like Dossie, at least to understand her. The same could be said for the other colorful characters who roam the pages of Die in the Dark.
As usual, Cockney attorney Arthur Crook, “a man accustomed to strut about in ready-mades of bright brown material and to sport vulgar, brown bowlers,” doesn’t make his appearance until late in the story. All of the Crook novels I’ve read so far are structured oddly, and this is no exception. Gilbert tears through plot at an astonishing rate; just when you think you know where the book is going, it abruptly wraps up one plot line and zips along to the next. This is both a strength and a drawback. Die in the Dark is always surprising, but sometimes it rushes through material that could have used more time to breathe. The result is not quite a social comedy, not quite a woman-in-peril thriller, not quite a detective story, but it is highly entertaining.
All things considered, this was an engrossing story of suspense and even though it’s not a classic example of its kind, you can still lose yourself in it for a couple of hours (only 150+ pages to cover) and I suspect that was Gilbert’s plan all along.
Die in the Dark (also published as The Missing Widow) is out of print in the United States. It is available as an ebook or paperback in the UK from the Murder Room.