Tell Death to Wait by Anita Boutell

published 1939

Tell Death to Wait

[The book has several narrators: these are two separate views of the same outfit…]

It was Penny. She was wearing a pale orange-coloured wool frock which blended with her hair eyes. Three seasons back when she was a debutante some society reporter in a supreme moment of bathetic inspiration had christened her the ‘Daffodil Girl’. Penny’d been daffodilling ever since. I’d told her a hundred times it was a mistake, that she should go in for contrasting colours, but she never listened. The result was an insipid bon-bon box-cover prettiness, no more.

[And another view…]

Penny had taken off her white coat, and the soft amber of her frock gave added warmth to the colour of her hair and eyes. Hers was an exciting loveliness, you wanted to clap your hands and cry: ‘Bravo, it’s been done at last! Just the right combination of colour and form has been found to compose an aesthetically satisfying human being.’ You felt you wanted to congratulate somebody or something. I was bemused by the plain joy that comes from simply looking at beauty. I sat and stared at Penny.

commentary: This demonstrates the cleverness of this short book (140 pages): when you read the first description of Penny, you tend to believe it: you are surely being told by the author that she is insipid. But then the second one comes along and you wonder who is right, and what these verdicts show about the characters making them.

The narrator changes a couple of times during the book, and the change is not flagged in any way. It’s not difficult to pick up on it, but still is the kind of tricksiness I normally dislike - but this time it really worked. Quite a large section of the books is narrated by the young woman Nan, ‘a dishevelled Tell Death to Wait 2girl in tweeds’, much younger and more innocent and less sophisticated than anyone else at a rather dreadful house-party.

The story is tight and compelling and engrossing. It is similar to another Boutell book (Death has a Past, on the blog here) – a small group of people, rising tension, plenty of motives, and a quirkiness and twistiness in the narrative. Most of the guests seem to lead (or have led) rather immoral lives by the standards of the time, and the hostess Leonora (Leo) is quite the piece of work. She writes, using others’ lives, she picks people up, focuses her attention on them, and then drops them. They all seem caught in some terrible eternal polygon of disastrous lives and relationships: I wonder if the sexual shenanigans were shocking at the time of writing.

Then someone dies: is it murder or not? One guest is convinced it is, but is thwarted by everyone else’s refusal to accept there is anything wrong. But surely right must prevail…?

All this takes place over the course of around 24 hours, and it is an excellent idea to read the book in an evening, which is not difficult to do. Time passes, everyone has sharp brittle conversations with each other, there is fear and disappearances and roaming around in the dark. Excellent stuff.

Crime fiction expert Curtis Evans wrote a fascinating essay on Boutell, (featured in a re-publication of her other two works – she only wrote four altogether) and has an illuminating post on Tell Death to Wait: it is well worth reading.

Orange dress and white jacket from a fashion illustration from the NYPL.

The other picture is my goto for a young woman in tweeds: it is silent movie star Dorothy Gish, and shows how very unflattering tweeds could be. Dorothy was famously beautiful, nearly as much so as her sister Lillian, but I don’t think you’d know that from this photo, which is from the Bain Collection at the Library of Congress.


  1. I do like that strategy of inviting the reader to work out who's actually telling the truth, Moira. Or is it a case of both right and both wrong? Interesting, and a very clever way to draw the reader in. The writing style's engaging, too.

    1. Anita Boutell really had something, Margot, and it's a pity she wrote so few books.

  2. You will keep doing this, Moira! Can't you review some books that I WOULDN'T like to read. Oh well, at least this one is nice and short.

    1. I know, Chrissie, and I do the same, look at other people's blogs and think 'oh well I would like that one, and just one more book isn't going to make the pile topple'. The pile is in fact out of control....

  3. Sounds good, but not easy to find. I will be content with the other two novels I have by her until I can find a copy of this one.

    1. Will be interested to know what you make of the others, Tracy.


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