“You wouldn’t think I was dangerous, would you? But I am.”
There was a time when Rene Tessier’s arrival in London drew cheering crowds who followed the French film star to his suite at the Ritz. But that was long ago, before Tessier’s son leaped to his death from the Arc de Triomphe. Before the great actor threw away his career in an alcoholic haze. Now, he slips into London unnoticed, holing up in a disreputable hotel. Tomorrow, he’ll be on the front page again—not as a comeback story, but as a suicide.
Glyn, the barrister hired to investigate the death, isn’t so sure. Why would Tessier kill himself when he was on the verge of recapturing his former glory? And what was Tessier’s true relationship to Eve Dulac, who captured Glyn’s heart at first sight? The lawyer soon learns that Rene Tessier’s real life was far more dramatic, and dangerous, than any of his films.
Courtier to Death attempts to impose a traditional detective-story framework onto a thriller plot, and it doesn’t really work. It’s full of interesting elements, used in unconventional ways—sometimes with good results, but more often it’s just confusing. One mystery leads to another, which leads to another, and so on. Then each crime is finally solved one by one. Though all of them eventually link together to form a clever international conspiracy, the story tends to treat each as distinct, individual cases rather than as part of a greater whole. What should be an epic finale ends up as a series of smaller, less impressive, solutions.
The murder of Tessier, the mysterious death of his son Louis, and Eve’s relationship to the two men would seem to offer enough scope for any detective. Glyn goes into the case with mixed motives: although film producer Julian Lane has hired him to prove Tessier was murdered and catch the killer, Glyn’s real reason for accepting the job is his infatuation with Eve Dulac. A part of him fears that Eve may be involved in the crime. If so, he is determined to shield her.
Much to his surprise, however, Glyn discovers that Scotland Yard is taking Tessier’s death more seriously than it has publicly revealed. On the boat train to Paris he shares a compartment with Inspector Field, who reluctantly agrees to let Glyn tag along on his investigation. Field will not play a major role in the case, though he does have a few amusing everyman moments.
It is a phenomenon peculiar to the English race that the prospect of a railway journey brings out the worst in their natures. On the whole a kindly people, the mildest philanthropist assumes for the occasion that anyone who, having purchased a seat, dares to occupy the same carriage as himself is a person of abominable and probably even criminal tendencies. Men who in their home life are amiable and in their business careers open-handed, become monsters of suspicion the instant they set foot on a platform. Inspector Field was no exception to this rule. Having austerely tipped a porter for finding him an empty carriage, he ostentatiously spread papers, a rug and as much hand luggage as he had brought with him over both seats.
The real great detective here is Dupuy of the Sûreté, whose egotism is meant to be endearing. “I never saw anyone who looked and behaved so much like a detective on the films,” Glyn marvels. “How he loves to mystify you; and how much pleasure he gets from his own bizarre effect.” Dupuy boasts that, while his manner is awfully presumptuous for a mere inspector, it is only fitting for the head of the Sûreté. And since he intends to become head of the Sûreté quite soon, why not begin as he means to go on? Since this inflated self-image is Dupuy’s only personality trait, however, there is really no reason to like or admire him.
The investigators’ first stop is Tessier’s landlady Madame Lemaitre, whose down-at-heel Montmartre boarding house is crammed with taxidermy. Rene Tessier was only one of Madame Lemaitre’s eccentric tenants, and the neighborhood is buzzing with rumors about her own strange habits.
A hundred times I’ve sat at my window there after lamplight—after the house was asleep—and there she’d be bowed over her table, counting the notes into piles. And then she’d gather it up and carry it off—don’t ask me where. I couldn’t see more than just the table. She’d have a lamp lighted and there she’d sit like a great black mountain with just her hands moving and clutching in and out of the circle of light. And at last she’d stand up and gather all the money together and she’d move away beyond the light till she was just a part of the blackness.
As the inquiry progresses, Glyn feels more and more disconnected from what is going on. Although Glyn and Dupuy are ostensibly working together, each conspires to hide information from their fellow sleuths. Glyn thinks of Dupuy as his rival, but Dupuy blithely refuses to consider the other man at all. He is playing a larger game. Glyn cannot help feeling stung that the two professionals consider him superfluous to their investigation, even as he must admit he adds nothing to it.
Gilbert ruthlessly demolishes the cliché of the brilliant amateur who runs rings around his police sidekick; as a matter of fact, his hamfisted efforts deliver a major blow to the case. Nor is Glyn much of a romantic hero. The more he dreams of winning Eve’s love by solving the case, the less likely either of these outcomes appear, and he knows it, “admitting to himself that he would probably experience a far keener throb of interest if he himself were cast for a heroic part. He felt that both the detectives, when they weren’t actually laughing at him, remembered him only as a nuisance they didn’t quite like to dismiss.”
In a more conventional novel, Glyn would be the hero, but Gilbert understands that no one really cares about the romantic subplot of a detective story—the mystery is what really counts. This means no time is wasted on love scenes. Unfortunately, it also leaves Eve’s character with little to do.
Eve’s lack of agency is the biggest of Courtier to Death’s wasted opportunities. She is far from the clingy, helpless heroines that populate many 1930s mysteries. Glyn finds her completely unreadable because she does not conform to his conventional view of women. Eve is beautiful, but makes no effort to enhance her beauty. She doesn’t seem interested in male attention, nor does she try to parlay her film job into an acting career. She is shown to be highly capable but also on edge, hinting at secrets in her past (and maybe in her present). Eve is a potentially fascinating character who seems set to play a large role in the story, only to be sidelined.
The fate of Eve is typical of Courtier to Death, which has a lot of good ideas but doesn’t know what to do with them. There are fascinating scenes interspersed with long stretches of tedium. Too many detectives are investigating too few suspects for too many crimes, resulting in a ridiculous pileup at the end, with murderers and drug smugglers practically popping out of the shrubbery. Though Courtier to Death at least fails in some interesting ways, it is ultimately a misfire nonetheless.
This book may have only had 250 pages, but it definitely felt a lot lot lot longer! The boredom began to set in when the drug trafficking element was introduced. Is it just me or are drug centred mysteries very often the boring ones? There are some clever clues in this case, but the identity of the culprit didn’t elicit any enthusiasm or interest from myself.
Courtier to Death (also published as The Dover Train Mystery) is out of print in the US, but is available as an ebook in the UK from the Murder Room.