Saturday, December 21, 2013

Murder by Experts

Anthony Gilbert was one of the pseudonyms used by English crime writer Lucy Beatrice Malleson (1899-1973). Murder by Experts, originally published in 1936, features her main series detective, a shabby pot-bellied lawyer-detective named Crook.

This is a country house murder mystery but at first no-one realises that there has been a murder. In fact no-one suspects that a murder has taken place until several weeks later.

A wealthy English Jewish art collector, Sampson Rubenstein, has invited a number of people to his country house to see his latest acquisition, a very rare and very valuable Chinese cloak. Chinese art is Rubenstein’s ruling passion and his collection includes a large number of cloaks, robes and other items of ancient and fabulously valuable clothing. In a slightly macabre manner the cloaks are all displayed on wax dummies.

Rubenstein’s wife Lal is Spanish. She’s a hot-blooded fiery Latin type to the nth degree, and she is insanely jealous. The current target of her jealousy is Fanny Price. Fanny Price is an intelligent beautiful ambitious woman who fascinates every man who meets her the way a cobra fascinates its prey. Fanny is the mistress of a middle-aged art dealer name Graham. She acts as his agent in the buying and selling of antiquities, especially Chinese antiquities. Her knowledge of Chinese art is encyclopaedic. Fanny is the sort of woman who would have been described at the time as an adventuress. In fact she has been described frequently in far less charitable ways.

No less than three of the people at the house party are under Fanny’s spell - Rubenstein, a young artist-photographer named Norman Bridie and Curteis, the middle-aged narrator of the novel, a man of artistic tastes who knows that Fanny is dangerous but doesn’t care. Also present are Bridie’s girlfriend Rose and Rubenstein’s capable but rather harassed secretary  Parkinson.

Trouble erupts on the first evening when Rubenstein offers to drive Fanny Price to the railway station. The weather is atrocious, with heavy ran and fog, and Rubenstein is a notoriously bad and reckless driver. Lal causes a rather spectacular scene. Rubenstein and Fanny set off for the railway station.

And that is the last that is heard of Sammy Rubenstein. And of Fanny Price. At least that is the last that is heard of either of them for several weeks, until evidence is found that suggests murder.

The police believe they have a strong case and they make an arrest. At this point Curteis decides to avail himself of the services of the lawyer-detective Crook.

Crook actually plays a subsidiary rôle with Curteis playing amateur detective doing most of the investigating. Curteis’ methods are rather rambling and undisciplined. Some of the leads he follows up seem to have only the sketchiest connection with the case. The plot meanders a good deal in the middle stages with the amateur sleuth appearing to work mostly by instinct, driven by his certainty that Fanny Price cannot possibly be guilty. The only reason he has for believing in her innocence is that he’s in love with her.

A single red hair is his most important clue and the deductions he makes from this hair stretch credibility quite a bit. A mysterious but sinister red-haired man may strike some readers as a bit of a cliché, as even being the kind of thing that made detective fiction a subject for mockery in some quarters.

The plot does eventually come together, after a fashion.

It’s a pity that Crook, a far more interesting character than the earnest obsessed Curteis, doesn’t take centre stage. Crook is a clever lawyer, but not a very honest one. He likes to win cases and he’s prepared to adopt methods that might raise eyebrows if they ever came to the attention of the Law Society.

It’s also a pity that the book’s femme fatale, Fanny Price, plays a disappointingly small part in the story. She’s also potentially a fascinating character but she’s left in the background.

The first third of the book, dealing with the build-up to the discovery of the murder, is the highlight. It’s a genuinely clever set-up. The book loses focus after that. The book also loses interest in some of the prime suspects quite early on, for no obvious reason, and this has the unfortunate effect of narrowing down the range of possible murderers.

Murder by Experts can scarcely be described as a classic of the genre. It’s main strengths is that it’s unusual among English detective stories of its era in featuring a full-blooded femme fatale who wouldn’t be out of place in an American hardboiled crime story, and in featuring a very disreputable detective. It’s worth a look if you can get hold of a copy in an inter-library loan but I wouldn’t go spending big bucks on this one.

1 comment:

  1. Quite brave of her to name her sleuth 'Crook'!