The Man in Button Boots (1934) by Anthony Gilbert

The Man in Button Boots by Anthony Gilbert

3 Stars (3/10 stars)

“I begin to see why you’re so frightfully interested in him. A diamond millionaire in a Monte Carlo hotel. Trite, of course, but the public doesn’t mind that. All the same ingredients. Who have you picked on for the murderer?”

Julian Marks is a man of mystery. The South African millionaire burst upon the London scene just a few years ago, buoyed by a mysterious fortune. Economic downturns and extravagant spending have brought him down to his last diamond, but it’s quite a stone. Most men would hesitate to travel to the French Riviera with the largest diamond in the world sewn to their waistcoats, but Marks is confident he can handle any kind of trouble.

At the Hotel Fantastique, his fellow guests place bets on how long Marks will manage to stay alive. What no one expects is for Julian Marks to vanish into thin air. Inspector Dupuy must discover what has happened to Marks…and what has happened to his diamond.

The Man in Button Boots begins marvelously. A distinctive and entertaining group of suspects appear to be gathered at the hotel, including a pushy detective novelist, her bright young niece, a shady politician, and his talkative wife. Anthony Gilbert spends a great deal of time establishing these characters and their relationships, setting the stage for a fine whodunnit. However, the moment Julian Marks disappears during a Halloween night game of hide-and-seek, the book becomes a tedious and confusing mishmash. All of those fun characters at the hotel are abandoned in favor of murky gangland conspiracies.

The “man in button boots” of the title is not Julian Marks or Inspector Dupuy. Rather, it is one of the hotel guests, Increase Latymer. At first, Latymer is the subject of much speculation.

Above all, there was that extraordinary man who wore button boots and hung about on the edge of crowds, went for aimless little walks, smiled absently when spoken to, who didn’t seem to have an idea in his head, but had brought a neatly rolled mackintosh and a bowler hat in his luggage, and hadn’t thought of removing from his suitcase labels marked York, Eastbourne, and St. Leonards. No one knew quite was he was doing here: he was absolutely out of the picture and didn’t even seem to be enjoying himself. He never went swimming or surf-bathing, didn’t gamble, played no games at all except chess […] He looked like a typical minor civil servant.

Yet this awkward little man plunges into the mystery without hesitation, poking around all the most dubious corners of Monte Carlo in search of Julian Marks and his diamond. Between them, he and Dupuy uncover all kinds of strange characters who may be involved in the disappearance, recounted at tedious length. It is impossible to overstate the dullness of these scenes, which just go on and on.

This is even more disappointing because the early chapters are so promising. Julian Marks, with his mysterious origins and cometlike rise and fall, is incredibly intriguing. “He’s such an odd chap, like the fellow who couldn’t throw a shadow. It’s as if there was no substance to any life he lived before he came here, and yet even his erratic type of genius couldn’t build this kind of present on shadows.” What would prompt such a intelligent man to openly travel with a priceless gem? Is it recklessness, hubris, or something even more sinister?

The moment Marks disappears, however, Gilbert rudely yanks back the promise of a glamorous, sophisticated mystery novel. Instead, we have Latymer grubbing around muddy huts full of kerosene tanks and interviewing every shady jeweler in Monte Carlo at great length. The investigation drags on so endlessly that I didn’t even notice at first that the denouement had finally started—though there is plenty of time to catch up, as the summing-up goes on for so long. While the culprit is certainly surprising, this person seems to have been chosen for pure shock value; nothing in the narrative supports this person as the killer.

Inspector Dupuy makes little impression here. He does at least experience an endearing homesickness for Paris, however. I would certainly rather read about this version of Dupuy than the one who appears here:

Suddenly, he felt the need to be back in Paris, the hub of the world, where the great wheel of life revolved, that shining city full of passionate men and women, robbing and forging and uttering bad money, cheating insurance companies, murdering their neighbors, planning gigantic criminal coups, among whom he would thread his way, detecting their fine schemes, winning laurels, engaged in a perpetual battle of wits, achieving new triumphs, seeking fresh victories […] scurrying like a rat through the Paris streets, watching the city with a thousand eyes, the invisible vengeance, the man no evil doers should escape…

The Man in Button Boots is the first of a brief two-book series starring Inspector Dupuy, the other being the equally messy Courtier to Death. On the basis of these two novels, it’s easy to see why Gilbert abandoned the series. These books don’t know whether they’re mysteries or thrillers, so they end up succeeding at neither. Since Dupuy rarely shows any personality, there’s not much to hold these long, overly detailed investigations together. At the same time, it’s easy to spot some of the traits Gilbert would soon use much more successfully with the Arthur Crook series. Like Dupuy, Crook’s gifts are rooted in a sincere love of the rackety criminal world he rubs up against. Sometimes he barely appears in his own books, leaving much of the sleuthing to others, but (unlike Dupuy) he is such a charming and distinctive character that he can easily make an impression in a brief time. The Crook novels are also far more skilled at blending suspense with detection. If Dupuy needed to crawl so that Crook could run, then these novels have earned their right to exist. However, that does not mean they have earned a permanent place on my bookshelf.

Availability

The Man in Button Boots is out of print in the US. In the UK, it is available in paperback and ebook formats from the Murder Room.


10 thoughts on “The Man in Button Boots (1934) by Anthony Gilbert

  1. I’m still trying to work out if I want to take a plunge with Anthony Gilbert — I really did not get on with Portrait of a Murderer (under her Anne Meredith pseudonym) and the couple of reviews I’ve seen of her books lately don’t make her sound like my sort of thing. I’ll certainly think twice before reading this one, but I don’t ever like writing an author off without, y’know, actually reading them first. And so the search continues…

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    1. Some of her Crook titles have more of a puzzle to them than others, which are more suspense with a maverick legal practitioner. Her Meredith title is very much different in style to the Crook books I think. Death Knocks Three Times is my absolute favourite and probably the best one for you to start with. Sure Tomcat liked that one too.

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    2. Please don’t let this put you off Gilbert–her books from the late 1930s to early 1950s are her best. Some of my favorites are She Shall Die, The Scarlet Button, The Black Stage, and Lady-Killer (that one is also an inverted mystery, but not as mean-spirited as Portrait of a Murderer could be). The plots never go quite where the reader expects, the characters are wonderfully complex, and Gilbert is pragmatic and unsentimental about them without being cruel.

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      1. I remember your review of Lady-Killer, which was what put Gilbert on my radar to begin with. Still hoping to track down a copy — worry not, I’ll definitely read her — and I appreciate the steer to other titles worth checking out. More news as we get it…

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