Death Knocks Three Times by Anthony Gilbert

DeathKnocksI cannot say that Anthony Gilbert is a new author to me. After all, I did love Portrait of a Murderer (written as Anne Meredith, another of her pseudonyms) enough to make it a Book of the Month last year and I knew that I wanted to return to her writing sooner rather than later to get a taste of her other types of work.

The selection of this particular title however was entirely as a result of reading a fantastic review of this title that Kate at CrossExaminingCrime wrote for her blog. I cannot say exactly what elements of the story grabbed my attention – perhaps it was the promise of a dark and biting conclusion – but I decided to go in search of a copy and found, to my delight, that this seems to be one of the few GAD novels I had no difficulty finding in a public library. Hurrah!

The novel opens with our sleuth, the thoroughly disreputable lawyer Arthur Crook arriving at a country house in the middle of a storm seeking shelter. The house is owned by an elderly colonel who refuses to move with the times and never has much company except his novelist nephew who visits several times a year in the hope it may lead to an inheritance at some future point.

During his stay Crook notices that the antique bathtub seems to be a deathtrap and comments on this fact to said Colonel. Several days later, after a visit from his nephew, the man is found dead in said bath with his neck broken.

A short while later an aunt of the novelist dies in a strange accident, just after he had paid a visit to see her. That leaves him with one surviving relative and when she starts receiving death threats she sends for a friendly advisor to help her figure out who may be behind it and what she should do. We are forced to wonder if said nephew’s family going through a run of misfortune or is someone giving fate a helping hand?

Death Knocks Three Times is not an inverted mystery although you may be forgiven for thinking you know who the killer is the whole time you are reading it. This is because Gilbert structures this book cleverly to lead the reader at all times to feel that they know where this is headed but because we are never definitively told what happened we have to remain open-minded to other possibilities.

This should be a limiting, narrow approach but I found it to be quite the opposite as instead of looking to eliminate suspects we are forced to consider who else might have a motive for committing these crimes to make a sense of each death. The story is very cleverly plotted and had me doubting my own (as it happens, quite correct) theory of what happened almost the whole way through.

I also really appreciated the blend of characters that Gilbert introduces to this story. Most of them may be described as unsympathetic but it is fascinating learning their stories and discovering their histories. My feelings about characters shifted at points in the novel as new information came to light about them, making them feel very human.

Readers who enjoy historical details will appreciate the references to petrol and sugar rationing that feature at points in this novel while others may appreciate some of the satirical comments about ‘artistic’ writers. Though this is a serious story, parts of the novel can be quite amusing and well-observed while the tension generated by the arrival of the anonymous letters is quite gripping.

If I were looking for criticisms, I do think that Crook is perhaps not effectively introduced for readers like myself who are new to the character. When I picked up the book I didn’t initially realize that he would be the sleuth in this story. In fact with his grim comments about how the Colonel’s bathtub could be used to murder someone, I was half expecting him to turn out to be the killer.

These are quite small complaints however in the scheme of things. Death Knocks Three Times is a clever, engaging story that contains some wonderful ideas, moments and revelations. I had little problem getting excited by the story and even though I thought I had identified the killer and their motive, the episodic structure of this mystery had me wondering if I had missed something.

Overall, I think this is a very exciting tale containing some wonderful ideas. The plot is complex but not convoluted and I think the author stitches the incidents in her story together in a convincing and compelling way to build to a great conclusion. I certainly expect that I will be returning to Gilbert again in the future so if anyone has any suggestions for stories to prioritize I’d be glad to hear them!

And, once again, thank you Kate for your review. I enjoyed this one enormously!

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Won an award of any sort (Why) – Book of the Month: Cross Examining Crime

Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith

PortraitThe festive season is upon us and so I plan to mark the occasion in my own way by reading five books which feature people being murdered against snowy, picturesque backdrops.

I am kicking off the week of reviews with a book that was published as part of the British Library Crime Classics collection. This will not be the only book I will be selecting from that series this week!

This novel is credited to Anne Meredith which, it turns out, was a pseudonym used by Lucy Beatrice Malleson of Anthony Gilbert fame. In a strange coincidence, I posted a response to a fellow blogger’s review last week while I was already reading this novel saying that I needed to try something by Anthony Gilbert and asking for suggestions. In my defense, I tend to skip over the introductions until after I have read the main text for fear of being spoiled.

I first learned about this book from reading a review on crossexaminingcrime. There were lots of reasons I was excited to read this book but chief among them was that Portrait of a Murderer is an inverted mystery. Those who have been following this blog for a while may have noticed that I am having something of a love affair with this form of crime fiction and so this was a particular attraction for me as I was curious to see how a different author would approach writing this type of story.

Typically the inverted crime novel gives the reader knowledge of the killer’s identity and presents the crime and the events that follow from their perspective. While we may know the killer’s identity, the mystery comes from the reader wondering how they will either be caught or evade justice.

In Portrait of a Murderer the author makes some slight tweaks to that formula to create a story that I think combines the best of both worlds by shifting perspectives throughout. She does this by dividing her novel into three distinct sections.

The first and shortest is a series of chapters, written in the third person, that introduce each of the potential killers who will arrive at Kings Poplars to speak with Adrian Gray in the hope of extracting money from him. Throughout this stage we have little idea who will be responsible for killing Gray and so the question is who will kill him and what will have occurred that pushed them over the edge.

The second section brings a shift into a first person narration style as we hear that character recount the events that led them to murder Gray and how they plan on escaping from the situation. The decision to shift to the first person is a smart one, allowing the reader to understand the rationale behind the decisions they are making to dress the crime scene in the hopes of making their escape. This section concludes at about the halfway point of the novel.

The final section switches back to the third person and begins shortly before the discovery of the body. The author presents us with several different characters who are trying to piece together what has happened and so, in addition to wondering if and how the murderer will be caught and how the lives of the other family members will be affected. We may also wonder who will manage to work out what had happened.

I absolutely loved this book and I think its success begins with this unusual structure. By shifting our point of perspective throughout the novel, the author provides variety within their narrative. This helps keep the material from becoming stale or repetitive, as can sometimes happen with a character who is continually worrying about being caught, and it allows us to experience multiple perspectives on the crime.

For instance, in the chapters that follow the murder we get to see how the various characters are responding to the crime that had been committed and how they are feeling about each other. This gives those characters added depth and also allows us to see their different perspectives of what a positive outcome to the investigation would be as well as the different ways that it affects their lives which is often quite unexpected.

Meredith’s characterization is as impressive as her structure and I was fascinated by the cast of family members that she creates. Each of them feel quite distinctive and have complex feelings towards Adrian Gray and each other. They have different goals that create division, in one instance between a married couple, and we learn how the possible suspects have each fallen into quite separate, dire financial circumstances that threaten to destroy them. These stories are all quite compelling and I thought the novel was unusually reflective about the different ways in which the murder will affect their lives going forward while the ending strikes a curious note that I wish I could discuss in more detail but fear I can’t without spoiling. I can say though that I found it to be quite effective.

These elements all combine to make one of the most interesting books I have read in the British Library Crime Classics series to date. With striking characters, moments of social commentary and a compelling plot, I found myself gripped throughout and thoroughly enjoyed its conclusion. I will clearly need to seek out some Anthony Gilbert books soon…