The Clock in the Hatbox (1939) by Anthony Gilbert

The Clock in the Hatbox by Anthony Gilbert

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

I write this in case of emergencies. I have reason to believe that I am in great danger and I cannot say how it will all end.”

The jury is in, and no one expects a surprise. Viola Ross is clearly guilty of murdering her husband Edward. She had the means, the opportunity, and certainly the motive—Edward Ross was suspicious of his younger wife’s relationship with his son Harry. Much to everyone’s shock, however, it’s a hung jury, with one juror refusing to convict.

The lone holdout on the jury is novelist Richard Arnold, who remains convinced of Viola’s innocence. He is determined to find the real killer before Viola’s retrial, even if it means risking his relationship, his reputation, and even his life.

The Clock in the Hatbox by Anthony GilbertThe Clock in the Hatbox has a spectacular ending. I mention this up-front because it was not until reaching that ending that I realized how good the book actually is. As an Anthony Gilbert super-fan, I expected to be blown away by this, her most widely and positively reviewed title. Instead, I found myself increasingly bored by the tiny circle of suspects and overly detailed narrative. Richard’s first-person narration feels rambling and colorless compared to Gilbert’s normally vivid prose style. Then I remembered another book of Gilbert’s that gave me this same restless, disconnected feeling early on. Sure enough, The Clock in the Hatbox ends with exactly the same twist as that book does, but executes it even better. Once that astonishing moment arrives, Gilbert suddenly begins working at full power, casually dropping one big twist after another for a truly stunning finish.

Everyone assumes that Richard is in love with Viola, but he swears that’s not the case. In fact, he’s already more or less engaged. His girlfriend Bunty is remarkably understanding as Richard’s investigation wreaks havoc on their lives. At first, all he learns is that Edward Ross was an unpleasant man. Though Ross was disliked by many, even Richard has to admit that there are only a few suspects who could get close enough to smother him in his bed and hide his alarm clock in a hatbox to delay discovery of the crime. One, of course, is Viola. She married for security, never anticipating how angry and controlling Ross could be. He even disowned his only son Harry for dropping out of university to become a journalist in London. It was Viola’s insistence on seeing Harry against her husband’s wishes that drove Edward to contemplate divorce—an action that would leave both Viola and Harry penniless. Edward’s secretary Irene was in love with him, but there is a thin line between love and hate. Most intriguingly, Richard finds that a local man may have seen someone entering the house that night. Who could this mysterious suspect be?

I felt suddenly exhausted, as if I were trying to hunt my way out of a thicket, with the thorns tripping up on every side. I wished desperately that the whole thing were over, Viola Ross free, and myself safely married to Bunty. I was beginning to be afraid, and I knew that that was fatal.

As Richard is such a bland presence, it’s fortunate that he seeks advice from the flamboyant attorney Arthur Crook. Crook is attracted by Viola as a potential client (“I like a bold sinner. I can’t stand your timid muddlers who give you a little push when the train’s coming in”), though he’s less keen on Richard’s rather clumsy efforts at detection.

Ever heard of Through the Looking-Glass? Yes. Then you’ll remember that the immortal prig who was the heroine of that story only reached her objective by walking away from it. That’s how the best detective work is done. Once you let this fellow see that you suspect him, it’s like a burglar breaking into a room, complete with facemask and jimmy, and making for the lady wearing the handsomest pearls. What you want to do is get into a boiled shirt and look so like a gentleman that nobody spots the difference.

Instead, Richard’s efforts only draw further attention, putting both himself and Bunty in danger. As the investigation progresses, however, he grows more and more obsessed, going so far in pursuit of his preferred suspect that it starts to seem like entrapment. “You’re ready to do anything to get Viola off,” Harry tells him. “It’s become an obsession with you. I suppose you can’t stand the thought that you might fail […] You don’t care who hangs as long as it isn’t your candidate. It’s the worst case of pride complex I’ve ever come across. I don’t believe you even mind if she did kill him.” The stranger the case becomes, the less anyone is willing to listen to his theories—including, after a while, me.

The Clock in the Hatbox has an intriguing premise, a long, verbose middle, and an ending that makes up for all the rest. In fairness to Richard, his solution is much more focused and engaging than his account of the investigation, and, as surprising as that solution is, all of the evidence is present in his story. These last chapters are so wonderfully executed that I wish the rest of the book had been as lively. In particular, the reader never gets to spend much time with Viola, which is a real loss to the story. The ending is truly splendid, however, and it’s worth enduring a little irritation along the way if it results in such an enthralling final coup de grace.

Second Opinions

Beneath the Stains of Time

All in all, The Clock in the Hatbox is a classic textbook example of what it is that attracts me to these cunningly cut gems from the genre’s Golden Era. I went in with expectations that were, perhaps too high, but began to get slightly disappointed as the explanation appeared to be obvious in spite of the author’s to cover it up as inconspicuously as possible – only to learn at the end that I was supposed to think that all along! The Clock in the Hatbox is without question one of Gilbert’s best detective novels and deserves to better known.

Clothes in Books

This is a very unusual and cleverly structured murder story, and quite an unnerving book. You keep thinking you have got a handle on it, that you know what kind of crime book it is, then it subverts itself one more time.

Crossexamining Crime

Well first of all I did not hate this book. Phew! However to be completely honest I feel like I could write many a sentence beginning with, ‘I enjoyed X about the plot,’ yet there would always be a but following after it. In some ways there is a lot of brilliant material in this book, but I think it was not fully exploited.

The Grandest Game in the World

This is first-rate.  It’s surprisingly dark, with menacing atmosphere and untrustworrthy characters.  The misdirection is titanic, playing on the reader’s knowledge of the genre, and one of its classics.

A Hot Cup of Pleasure

A cracker of a mystery. Recommended whole-heartedly.

Pretty Sinister

I could go on to mention that this is rather a landmark mystery novel that for some reason is NEVER mentioned in the many studies of the detective novel. I thought Death Knocks Three Times (1949) was a tour de force, but The Clock in the Hatbox (1939) is also worthy of that laudatory label. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this novel is just plain ballsy. Lucy Malleson had nerve when she wrote this one and she pulls it off rather well. 


The Clock in the Hatbox is out of print in the US with few used copies available. Happily, it has been reissued in the UK by the Murder Room, in paperback and ebook formats.

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. Continue reading “The Man in Button Boots (1934) by Anthony Gilbert”

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 tie, 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.


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

Courtier to Death (1936) by Anthony Gilbert

Courtier to Death by Anthony Gilbert

4 Stars (4/10 stars)

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.

Courtier to Death by Anthony Gilbert

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.

The Dover Train Mystery by Anthony GilbertGilbert 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.

Second Opinion

Crossexamining Crime

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.

Die in the Dark (1947) by Anthony Gilbert

Die in the Dark by Anthony Gilbert

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“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. Continue reading “Die in the Dark (1947) by Anthony Gilbert”

Lady-Killer (1951) by Anthony Gilbert

Lady Killer by Anthony Gilbert 1951 book cover

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“As one man becomes an engineer and another a doctor, so Henry became a husband. It was his living. The knocking off of his various wives when they had served their purpose was part of the routine, and involved no personal dislike or revenge…It was all perfectly simple, and his conscience never gave him a twinge.”

Some men balk at marriage, but not Henry. He’s always been an eager bridegroom. First to Greta…then Beryl…then Flora.

No one is likely to notice the commonplace deaths of insignificant middle-aged women—no one except  lawyer Arthur Crook, who collects potential murders. When Sarah enters Henry’s life, it’s up to Crook to prove the truth about Henry’s career of widowhood before it’s too late. Continue reading “Lady-Killer (1951) by Anthony Gilbert”

Death Takes a Wife (1959) by Anthony Gilbert

Death Takes a Wife by Anthony Gilbert

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“The whole of his past life with Blanche closed up behind him like one of those vanishing roads in the ancient fairy tale. Turn your head and there’s nothing to be seen. Not darkness, not shadows even, just nothing, because until now nothing real has existed.”

There is an unsolved mystery in my city, the disappearance of a young woman. Everybody knows that the friends who saw her last conspired to cover up her death. Even the most cursory Google search by employers or potential dates will reveal that they have been convicted of murder in the court of public opinion. These accusations will follow them until the case is solved…if that ever happens.

If they are guilty, this is something like justice—maybe the only justice the victim and her family will ever receive. But if they are innocent, they are living a nightmare.

This dilemma fascinates me, and must have fascinated Anthony Gilbert as well, since Death Takes a Wife is at least the third book of hers dealing with characters who have been accused, but not convicted, of a crime. How do you carry on with life knowing that everyone you meet believes you’ve gotten away with murder?  Continue reading “Death Takes a Wife (1959) by Anthony Gilbert”