Tenant for the Tomb (1971) by Anthony Gilbert

Tenant for the Tomb by Anthony Gilbert

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“In my experience, no blackmailer stops short at one victim and most of them overreach themselves in the end. That’s when they get careless. Blackmail may be money for old rope, but even old rope can be twisted into a noose.”

Everyone knows Imogen Garland is not quite all there. Her exuberant fashion and rambling, all-too-honest conversational style have often proved embarrassing to her brother, a member of Parliament. He’s even hired a companion to keep Imogen out of trouble.

The chatty Imogen makes friends wherever she goes. While waiting for the London train, she confides to fellow passengers Dora Chester and Arthur Crook about her dislike for her companion Miss Styles and the number of accidents she has suffered recently. Her point is proven soon enough, as Imogen nearly ends up under the wheels of a train. Dora wonders whether it was really an accident. Arthur Crook knows it wasn’t—someone like Imogen is destined for murder. When you live life on your own terms, sometimes you end up dying on someone else’s.

Tenant for the Tomb by Anthony GilbertI had low expectations for Tenant for the Tomb, only to be very pleasantly surprised. Aside from some occasional fuzziness around the edges, this is an easygoing comic mystery anchored by the unlikely friendship between Imogen and Dora. Like all Anthony Gilbert mysteries, it contains enough plot for about three ordinary books, but here the various narrative threads follow one another quite naturally without ever feeling rushed.

Following the incident with Imogen and Miss Styles, Dora begins uneasily settling into her new home, a supposedly haunted cottage cozily tucked beside the graveyard. “Imogen and her guardian faded out of her mind, ships that pass in the night and leave no track of their passing, or whatever it was the poet had actually said. What she didn’t appreciate was that ships that make a one-way passage sooner or later embark on the return journey, and a second encounter may be of more significance than the first.” Dora is saddened, but not terribly surprised, to read that a local woman has fallen to her death from a London hotel room. What does surprise her is the identity of the dead woman: It’s not Imogen, but Miss Styles, her companion. 

The ultra-respectable hotel is thrown into chaos by Miss Styles’ fall from grace, which is witnessed only by the hysterical Mrs. Huth, who doesn’t know how she’s going to explain all this to her husband back in Surbiton. “It was like some great bird,” she babbles to the crowd in the hotel lobby, “like a great black bird…No one expects to see a body falling through space from…well, from nowhere.”

“Someone had better telephone the husband and tell him what happened,” the man insisted. He was a doctor, secretly as sick a mud that a thing like this should happen on one of his rare free evenings. “He can come up and fetch the car and the lady.” When Mrs. Huth began to babble about Percy not liking driving, the doctor said in curt tones that if she couldn’t think of herself she might think of her fellow drivers. In the condition she was in right now she’d be all over the road, and one fatal accident in an evening was quite sufficient. For while all this parleying was going on, Ted had taken a peek at the victim and had come back looking nearly as white as Mrs. Huth, to say this one had bought it and in God’s name hadn’t anyone got a rug. So Mr. Harlequin and Ted went out and someone rang up Mr. Huth, and Mrs. Harlequin, who’d kept discreetly in the background, called an ambulance, and Mrs. Huth found herself sipping brandy after all. A crowd of idlers, the sort that seem to spring up whenever anything dramatic occurs, were gathering round the hotel entrance like a band of supers waiting for their call. “Haven’t you people got home to go to?” demanded the doctor furiously. “Even vultures have their nests, I’m told.” Then the police car, hooting its siren like a bird of ill omen, came dashing up, followed by an ambulance whose driver remarked, sotto voce, that you didn’t have to pass any bleeding exams to see this one had bought it.

Imogen, who “didn’t exactly fancy staying in a room that, as you might say, had already rejected Miss Plum,” goes on the lam in London. She fits in easily; the streets and parks are full of people with nowhere else to go. Gilbert’s portrayal of the counterculture is less judgmental than many other authors of her generation. The hippies sleeping in the park are polite to Imogen, even lending her a blanket. Yet they also keep a safe distance, realizing that her presence is likely to attract unwanted police attention. There is nothing intimidating, laughable, or romantic about them. They are simply people who live in the park and wear “what looked like his mum’s discarded fur jacket over chestnut-colored velvet trousers,” which is not seen as any more remarkable than Imogen’s doings. It’s also notable that this is the only time Imogen is really seen on her wanderings—for a long time, she is protected by nothing more than the natural invisibility of older women.

Tenant for the Tomb by Anthony GilbertThis proves to an ongoing theme in Tenant for the Tomb. The more we see of Imogen, the more clear it becomes that she is not insane. She’s simply a middle-aged woman who’s not afraid to call attention to herself or take up the space she’s entitled to in the world. In that, she and Dora are birds of a feather. The sensible Dora would seem like an odd fit with Imogen, but they both live their lives based on the belief that “the norm was oneself, and the rest of the world—all those who differ from you, I mean—was ab or sub.” I will admit that I prefer Dora’s more straightforward approach to Imogen’s scatty one, but events will prove that Imogen is much sharper and more quick-thinking than she appears.

This makes Imogen’s nickname all the more annoying. Arthur Crook instantly dubs her “Dotty” based on her apparent barminess, and only refers to her by that name throughout the book. Confusingly, the narrative then begins calling her “Dotty” and “Imogen” interchangeably. Much later, Imogen claims this is what everyone calls her because she is so crazy. Though she claims to be amused, it not only seems cruel of the book to insist on using a mean-spirited nickname, it also adds a lot of confusion to the early part of the story, which is hectic enough as it is. The nickname is never really properly introduced, it just starts being used out of nowhere during a sequence that includes a lot of new characters, leaving the reader uncertain as to whether this is supposed to be Imogen or a different person altogether. Imogen also gives Miss Styles a rather irritating nickname—“Miss Plum,” because her first name is Victoria. I assume that is a…type of plum? At any rate, it’s not funny and she uses it constantly.

Together, Imogen and Dora set out to discover whether the prim Miss Styles, who was obsessed with Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors, had some horrors in her own background. Imogen’s sister-in-law Flora hired her as a companion based on their war service together, but, as Flora explains:

It was an odd thing about the war, it doesn’t and didn’t seem like a part of one’s personal life. A curtain fell in 1939 and was lifted six years later, but the history within the confines of those curtains was a separate existence. Nothing that happened to me during that time, particularly after my unit went to France, seems to have any connection with myself, the woman who is Sir Charles Garland’s wife and Timothy Garland’s mother…It’s like a thick cut out of the middle of the loaf.

It’s not at all clear what Miss Styles has been up to since 1944. Crook and company’s efforts to unravel her activities take them from wartime Normandy to a genteel seaside hotel full of worrying encounters on cliff edges. All of this is just as it should be.

The ending of Tenant for the Tomb is less satisfying than what comes before. Gilbert makes the classic mistake of assuming that if she does not follow up on a thunderingly obvious possibility, readers will simply forget that it was ever introduced and be shocked by it a few pages later. That wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t such a drawn-out process. (Think Roman Hat Mystery. It’s that egregious.) This is also the point where it suddenly struck me that there were no suspects for this crime. A killer who comes out of nowhere is always disconcerting, even if Crook does make a good case.

Tenant for the Tomb embodies the spirit of its heroine. It is a shambling, likable creature that gets the job done in its own way, as long as you don’t worry too much about the details. While not the most rigorous mystery, there is a warm, goodhearted quality to the story that is always welcome.

Second Opinion

My Reader’s Block

I think this is my favorite Arthur Crook mystery yet. I’ve found that I much prefer the stories where the lawyer shows up early in the proceedings. As I’ve mentioned before, Gilbert/Malleson is much more effective when she’s writing about her protagonist and his interactions with other characters. This particular plot contained numerous laugh-out-loud moments, especially when Crook, Imogene, and Dora are all on stage. The conversation runs like a comedy team’s patter routine. And the plot is quite good too. I had my heart set on a certain culprit and managed to disregard any and all clues that Gilbert/Malleson provided along the way.

Availability

Tenant for the Tomb is available as an ebook in the UK from the Murder Room.


6 thoughts on “Tenant for the Tomb (1971) by Anthony Gilbert

    1. It’s pretty impressive that an author born in 1899 was still writing pretty decently into the 1970s. The mystery here is not Gilbert’s sharpest, but it’s entertaining and definitely has that unique sensibility Gilbert always brings to her work.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s