Monday, February 4, 2019

Anthony Gilbert, Death Knocks Three Times

Anthony Gilbert, Death Knocks Three Times
Originally published by Walter J. Black (New York) 1949
© Anthony Gilbert 1949
(This book pre-dates the ISBN system.)

Anthony Gilbert was the pen name of Lucy Beatrice Malleson (thanks to Stop, You’re Killing Me), a prolific writer of mysteries published from 1927 t0 1974 (she died in 1973)  (Her wikipedia page-- much useful information about her career.  At this time, so far as I can tell, none of her books are in print; only one, a compilation of shorts (Sequel to Murder, a compilation published by Crippen & Landru in their “Lost Classics” series).  Even ABE is not much help; I find less than a dozen of her (nearly 75) books available there.

On the evidence of Death Knocks Three Times (by my count the 22nd in the series of books featuring barrister Arthur Crook), this is a pity.  I bought this one based on some very positive comments about it I read somewhere, and it is excellent (which is not to say perfect).  We begin with Crook driving through a storm, on his way home (which is London) following the successful completion of a trial.  The roads are bad, he has to take a detour, and finally comes upon an isolated house, where he seeks refuge.  The occupants—Col. James Sherren (ret.) and Jimmy Bligh, his servant—are surprised (in the case of the Colonel, somewhat outraged) that someone has arrived at their door. Crook, however, persuades them to offer him a (cold, uncomfortable) room.

Shortly after Crook’s return to his chambers in London, a police inspector calls on him, to ask what, if anything, he might know about the Coloner’s death.  He died the night following Crook’s departure, while his nephew, John Sherren, was there for a brief visit.  The (rather unique) cause of death is suspicious, and Crook is required to attend the inquest, at which the verdict is death by misadventure.

But Crook’s interest in the death of the Colonel does not end there.

The Colonel has left everything to Bligh (as his nephew knew).  And John Sherren is left with two maiden aunts, his mother’s sisters, Isabel and Clara Bond.  John inherited his mother’s estate, which was sufficient to support his efforts as an author.  Clara inherited the Bond estate from her father, from her (and Isabel’s) brother, with a stipulation that Clara take care of Isabel, with the balance to go to Isabel if Clara dies first. 

At this point, John is a none-too-successful author, and Clara and Isabel are living together, supported by their inheritance.  Until one day Isabel’s body is found on the rocky beach below their house on a bluff overlooking the sea.  (She had been, so far as anyone knows, home alone.)

And then Clara begins receiving threatening letters (some through the post, some left at the house).

So that’s the setting.  Clara sells the house and moves into a residential hotel.  And following dinner and after-dinner entertainments with John and a friend of Isabel’s, Frances Pettigrew.  With them at the end of the evening is a Mr. Marlowe, who had been courting Isabel shortly before her death.  (Miss Pettigrew is there because Clara has asked her advice about the threatening letters.)  That night, Clara dies, having taken poison.  The question, obviously is who and why.

Crook’s attention is attracted to the affair, and while he does not exactly investigate, he does take an interest, talking often and at length with the other parties.  And, following a long conversation with Miss Pettigrew, he indicates that he knows who is responsible for Clara’s death, and why.  In the course of that conversation, Crook also explores how, and why, Isabel died.  That’s not exactly the end, but it is the climax. 

This is a relatively sort (155 pages) book, but the story is complex and multifaceted.  It was, for me, an engrossing mystery, with a fairly well-hidden solution.  And so I am left hoping to find more of Anthony Gilbert’s books,

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