“It would be discouraging on the eve of a summer holiday to have an unknown man fall into one’s rooms and die on one.”
This holiday in the south of France was supposed to be a big adventure for Paul Ashby and his friends, their last hurrah before settling down to jobs and adulthood. Now the others have cancelled, leaving Paul to make the trip alone. He’s afraid he’ll have a dull time of it. He needn’t have worried.
The night before his departure, a stranger collapses on his doorstep. Major Kent was also planning a trip to France, to find his missing son, but his heart attack makes that impossible. Paul offers to undertake the search himself. This impulsive gesture plunges him into a world of artists, thieves, and killers on the French Riviera, guided by the irrepressible painter Benvenuto Brown. If he’s not careful, however, Paul may find himself the next victim.
The Crime Coast is a delightful lark, just right for a summer day. The seaside village of St. Antoine, with its boisterous artists’ colony, makes an ideal setting for a mystery, especially with painter and bon vivant Benvenuto Brown as the detective. Benvenuto finds that his careers as an artist and an amateur sleuth coexist nicely:
“I always paint best when I’ve got a problem to work out, likewise always work a problem out best when I’m painting. It seems to get the two sides of my mind free to work independently. I suppose that’s why I took up criminology.” He laughed. “One ought to be able to project a world’s masterpiece out of this affair.”
The mystery itself is on the thin side, more of a thriller than a pure detective novel. Adrian Kent was involved with Luela da Costa, a wealthy and possessive older woman. Just three days ago, Luela was found murdered in a London hotel room, her nude corpse adorned with jewels. The missing Adrian is the prime suspect, but Benvenuto thinks otherwise. In fact, he has been on the case for some time before Paul’s arrival and already has a suspect picked out—not difficult in such a tiny circle.
Indeed, the detective to suspect ratio is nearly 1:1. Paul and Benvenuto are aided by Inspector Leech of Scotland Yard and, more importantly to Paul, painter Adelaide Moon, who awakens his scholarly impulses. “Paul wasn’t an expert on legs, but frequent visits to the British Museum to study the Greek vases made him recognize that hers really were the most classic shape.”
Luela’s murder and the search for Adrian are merely excuses for exploring the Cote d’Azur. Paul’s arrival is like stepping into another world. “Everyone is quite mad” in these artistic circles, and even the shy Paul loosens up quickly. Thinking of 1920s style conjures up images of flappers throwing away their corsets; it’s easy to forget how restrictive male clothing could also be in that era. Paul is fascinated by the bright, comfortable clothes worn on the Riviera, especially the tricot, which is literally just a striped t-shirt. (The idea of an easy short-sleeved shirt for men’s everyday wear is so foreign that there isn’t even an English word for it.) Finding that the tricot shows off his figure nicely, Paul is eager to ditch his city suit.
Discarding a vermilion jumper as being a little conspicuous for a detective, he finally picked on one in broad stripes of blue and white, which besides toning, he felt, with the landscape had the advantage of being repeated all over the port. A black beret and a pair of rope-soled shoes laced across the instep, called, he discovered, espadrilles, completed his toilette […] Next door he found green sun spectacles and then continued on his way to the beach, feeling rather proud of his efforts.
Suitably outfitted, Paul sets out on an adventure with his new friend Benvenuto. There are fistfights, car chases, and facial massages galore.
It’s all very sunny and cheerful. The Crime Coast is a breezy romp with a more interesting ending than I expected. The solution is a logical one based on evidence; Benvenuto holds it close to his chest, but the clues are actually out there for the reader to spot, slyly disguised by all the thriller shenanigans.
In some ways I don’t think this is a conventional investigation, as Brown doesn’t really interact with the Scotland Yard official with the usual amateur/police dynamic. Moreover, I don’t think this is a mystery with lots of initial clues to follow up and it is more a case of Brown and Ashby spying on certain characters and using information from this to direct their next steps. The mystery is perhaps quite easy to fathom for the observant reader, as I clocked the murderer very early on. But since this is Gill’s first mystery I felt I could be a little lenient, as I felt she has a lot of potential as a writer and I’d be interested to see whether a change of or a more conventional detective fiction plot type might marry her strong writing skills with a more complex mystery.
In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel
It’s a charming read, one of three books from Gill reissued by the lovely folks at Dean St Press. It’s a highly readable, hugely enjoyable book, reading for the most part as a thriller rather than a mystery, but there’s a hugely satisfying finale that is, I think, fairly set up.
All of this makes for a good, solid and tight detective story, but the small cast of characters also turned out to be sole flaw of the book, because the murderer has practically nowhere to hide. A seasoned armchair detective will easily point out the guilty party, but, to be fair, there’s an additional challenge here that’s almost as important as identifying the murderer and consists of piecing together the right sequence of events.
The Crime Coast is available as an ebook from Dean Street Press.
2 thoughts on “The Crime Coast (1929) by Elizabeth Gill”
Great review. Very good at refreshing my memory of this book, (thanks for the link btw). Your profiling of Paul is certainly entertaining!
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A very charming book, even if it can’t quite make up its mind whether it’s a thriller or a detective story! Paul is one of the rare sidekicks who comes across as sweet and earnest, rather than just dumb. His delight in the fashion was hilarious–though female characters have makeovers all the time, why not men as well?