Lucy Malleson was an interesting and capable writer who enjoyed a good deal of success without ever, really "breaking through" into the literary big-time. After her death in 1973, her work quickly faded from view, but she'd had a long career, writing under a variety of pen-names: J. Kilmeny Keith, Anthony Gilbert, and Anne Meredith. The Gilbert name became the best-known, but last year I was delighted to write an introduction for her first Anne Meredith novel, Portrait of a Murderer, when it became the Christmas title for the British Library's Crime Classics series. The book did well- so well, in fact, that although the main focus was on the paperback edition, I gather that the hardback edition swiftly sold more copies than the original first edition! Who would have expected that?
I've read a few of the Anthony Gilbert titles over the years, and I've had mixed feelings about them. She was a capable writer, and she had the important strength of caring about her work which meant that she was not content to stick rigidly to a single storytelling formula. Her main protagonist, Arthur Crook, is a rascally solicitor, so you might think he has a particular appeal for me, but in truth I'm not much of a Crook fan. Sometimes he seems to get in the way of the story, and to me, it's no surprise that a good film made of one of her books, My Name is Julia Ross cut him out of the storyline altogether. So did the remake, Dead of Winter.
All of which brings me to Death Knocks Three Times, a novel she published in 1949. The date is significant, because a key element of the story is the period setting: we really get a feel of life in post-war austerity Britain, although some of the political comments seem a bit delphic to a modern reader. The story begins, like others such as The Nine Tailors, with the detective hero - if one can call Crook a hero - stuck in the middle of a car journey due to bad weather, and taking refuge somewhere just before a mysterious sudden death occurs.
It's not quite clear whether murder has taken place (though the reader will suspect it has...) and the action then shifts to a sequence of poison pen letters, sent to a rather unpleasant elderly lady, who summons help from another woman, who is very nicely characterised and whose name is Frances Pettigrew (was Gilbert referencing Cyril Hare's Francis Pettigrew? Given the number of literary and specifically crime fiction allusions in the book, it is possible). Anyway, as the book title suggests, two more deaths fall to be considered, but an unusual air of mystery pervades the story. It's far from clear what is really going on until Crook comes up with an explanation - which, to be honest, I didn't find wholly satisfying, especially in relation to the first death.
This is a novel that has earned rave reviews from good judges such as John Norris. For my part, I admired Gilbert's ambition, and her attempt to do something different and unusual, but I felt that the narrative was too diffuse to be altogether successful, and Crook's muted role also felt rather unsatisfactory. An interesting book, though, and despite my reservations I'm glad I read it.