Thursday, October 24, 2013

Forgotten Books: A Murder Staged: Anthony Gilbert's The Musical Comedy Crime

I experienced a sense of deja vu while reading Anthony Gilbert's The Musical Comedy Crime. A man is murdered and Inspector Field investigates. He zooms in on one suspect and despite misgivings arrests him. Then Scott Egerton, the Liberal politician- detective of Gilbert's early novels (before the advent of her most masterly creation, Arthur Crook) enters the scene. From then on the investigation focusses on another man and how to break his alibi. The structure of the story is similar to that of  The Body on the Beam, the last Egerton novel I read, and thus it was like walking on (unfortunately for a mystery) familiar ground.



Constance Fayle is a down-on-her-luck stage-actress. With the coming of cinema, people have lost interest in watching stage-performances and theatres are closing all over the country:

And in more than one district lately the news had filtered through, the little theatre was being abandoned, transformed into a picture house; that had happened at Ealing and at Notting hill, and probably it would soon happen in other places too. You couldn't compete with the pictures. They were cheap, comfortable, could be entered at any time, and didn't involve reserved seats. (29-30).

The only silver lining for Constance is that she still gets the lead role rather than being one of the chorus.

"Like a flock of birds, you ought to be," the producer had told them - "that's the reaction you should arouse in your audience - a flock of birds." Pretty birds, indeed, thought the exhausted, underpaid chorus, joining their hands above their heads, twirling on toes encased in shoes that wouldn't bear a very close inspection, noticing drearily how tarnished the other girls' spangles were and wondering if their own were as bad, how rents had been mended in the short pink frills that stood out - like a flower, of course, that was the producer again from their tired bodies. (7)

Then one day even as she performs in a play that hasn't evoked any interest in the public, she notices a red-haired man in the audience staring intently at her. Hoping that he is some money-bags producer, Constance tries to impress him and is most gratified when he comes to the green-room to meet her. However, her dreams come crashing down when the man (a Major Hillier as we come to know later) is rude and offensive to her; rather than a business proposal for her, he has a (threatening) message for her husband, the slightly shifty Harold Fraser. An embittered Constance conveys the message to her husband who goes white-as-a- sheet and bolts out of the house.

The next day, Major Hillier is found dead in his study by his servants and the police have no clue about who might have killed him. Further, Hillier himself seems to be a rather peculiar character:

Before the war he might have found it difficult to effect an entry into many of the houses where he was now a familiar figure. But no one troubled about parentage in the old formal way; a man was accepted for what he was, had or had accomplished, for himself in short, rather than for any virtue of his forbears; society had become very elastic during the past dozen years. (39)

The police arrest Parsons, Hillier's man-servant, but once Egerton enters the scene the focus shifts to the absconding Fraser. What follows is an elaborate cat-and-mouse game between the detective and the supposed murderer.

Mystery wise, the book is not great but what saves it are the last couple of pages. As (the now successful) Constance looks back at her life, especially the initial years of marriage when two shy, lonely people had sought comfort in each other, the novel becomes heart-wrenching.

The last few pages restored my faith in Anthony Gilbert. If there is one author whose books need to be widely-available, it is Gilbert.

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First Line: For the last time that evening the weary chorus swooped on to the stage.

Title: The Musical Comedy Crime

Author: Anthony Gilbert

Publication Details: London: Collins, 1936 (The Crime Club)

First Published: 1933

Pages: 255

Trivia: This book seems to have been pretty popular. First published in September 1933, it had its second impression within a month. By 1936, it was in its fourth impression.

Other books read of the same authorThe Body on the BeamThe Clock in the Hat-Box Death Knocks Three Times; Lady Killer



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The book might be available in second-hand book shops. I borrowed it from a library.

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Submitted for various challenges.

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Entry for Friday's Forgotten Books @ pattinase.










9 comments:

  1. Neer, I have never heard of Anthony Gilbert and your reference to the author as "her" got me interested in knowing her real name, Lucy Beatrice Malleson. The innovative title suggests a murder mystery set across three genres.

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  2. Prashant, till last year I too had not heard of Gilbert. Then I chanced upon a blog, searched for her books and was lucky enough to borrow The Clock in the Hatbox. The book had such a knock-out punch in the end that it made me her fan. I rate her very high.

    If you are interested, you can borrow another wonderful mystery of hers, Death Knocks Three Times from the Open Library.

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  3. Neeru - What an interesting choice. I must try some of Gilbert's work. She's an author I hadn't heard of, either, before now. Shame on me! Thank you for highlighting her work.

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    1. Margot, considering your vast knowledge of crime-fiction, I am a little surprised that you hadn't heard of Gilbert. She was a very prolific and (in her heydays) extremely popular writer. That said, I am glad if this post has piqued your interest in Gilbert. Would love to read your views on her.

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  4. I have been neglecting vintage mysteries for more recent books lately (except for an Agatha Christie now and then). This reminds me I have several books by Gilbert I need to read. In 2014, probably.

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    1. Oh Tracy, I have long been waiting for your views on Gilbert. Sincerely hope that you like her (keeping my fingers crossed).

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    2. neer, if I don't get to one this year, I will do one for the Vintage Mystery Challenge in January. Looking forward to it.

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  5. Never read much Gilbert and this doesn;t sound like a place to start again! However, I do like the sound of the ending - good to know that those claims against GAD novels, that they often lack heart and character and only focus on plot, is not entirely true! Thanks Neeru.

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    1. Thanks Sergio for having a look. Yes, definitely not a very interesting who-dunn-it but definitely interesting as a chronicle of life in England b/w the wars; and the reflections of a character in the last few pages extremely moving.

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