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