“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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 cracker of a mystery. Recommended whole-heartedly.
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.