Dress Down Sunday: Death in Fancy Dress by Anthony Gilbert


published 1933

LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES



Death in Fancy Dress 5
[A fancy dress costume party at a country house. There are tensions and nefarious goings-on]

Eleanor appeared, dressed as the Family Ghost, in trailing white draperies, with diamonds in her hair. Nunn followed her, in his ordinary dress suit, carrying a table napkin. It was an ingenious dress, and a courageous one, for, with his square blunt features, the stolidity of his bearing and his general lack of distinction, he looked exactly like the head waiter he represented…


Death in Fancy Dress 4
The rest of the party began to arrive. Hilary, in vivid silk pyjamas, carrying a Teddy Bear, came as Tantalising Tommy, though for most of the evening I think she was taken for Christopher Robin, with Pooh. The others showed a marked originality…

Mrs Ross stood at my side and commented on the arrivals. ‘Has it occurred to you how easy it would be to steal jewels at a party like this? Almost anyone could gate-crash. There’s that child Hilary in nothing but pyjamas… That child hasn’t got so much as a vest on, I daresay. Why, I remember being whipped by my father at 14 for running downstairs in a petticoat with bare arms and no stockings on. There’ll be no indecency in this house, he said.’

commentary: I (along with half my crime fiction fan friends) have been reading the recently published collection of Dorothy L Sayers’ collected crime reviews, edited by our good friend Martin Edwards. The book is called, pleasingly, Taking Detective Stories Seriously. 

I knew this would mean books obtained and read, and this is the first one. DLS has this to say:
[it] has at least one uncommon merit. It contrives to persuade us that something really serious and unpleasant is taking place at Feltham Abbey. So often in a detective story trivial irregularities like blackmail and murder seem scarcely to ruffle the placid current of domestic affairs… Here, the atmosphere of suspense and uneasiness really does pervade the household.
- and that’s a very good description. But I was already pretty much certain to want to read any book with that title – as I frequently say, I do love a fancy dress party. (Click on the labels below for proof.) Naturally, this one is going to end in a murder.

The plot is complicated and there are quite a few major characters: the narrator and his old schoolfriend, Jeremy, have come down to the country house with two intentions 1) to stop the young and beautiful Hilary from getting married to the wrong person and 2) to catch a wicked blackmailer who is terrorizing high society with implications for politics and international affairs and associated treason. Hilary is quite an unusual heroine in that she behaves very badly throughout. I relished this:
‘What does that girl remind you of?’ Jeremy asked, as the door closed. 
‘A mouse,’ said Mrs Ross, promptly and unpleasantly. ‘It leaves its traces behind it wherever it goes.’
She does have reason for some of her activities, but dear me she is a handful. Various suitors pop up throughout the book, but you don’t exactly envy whoever is lucky enough to win her hand. But then, that does make her a refreshing change from most of the heroines of the era.

As DLS suggests, Gilbert was very good at creating an atmosphere and some tension. I’m not sure if it would have been possible to work out any solution till very late, but it was suitably surprising. An enjoyable book, and very much one of its time.

Anthony Gilbert (who was in fact a woman called Lucy Malleson) wrote a lot of crime books: a couple of them have featured on the blog.



Death in Fancy Dress 1


Death in Fancy Dress 2


Tantalizing Tommy (and obviously I had to look this up) is the heroine of a French play, a play in English, and a musical, all from the early 20th century. The small screengrab above is from a French film of the original (La Petit Chocolatiere), and the quote is presumably the source of Hilary’s costume. (‘bus.’ I think means – business. So the actress will be making something of her appearance in pyjamas.) The play – which I found and read online – is a farce, and Tantalizing Tommy (a woman) stays the night in a man’s cottage when her car breaks down. She borrows his pyjamas and sleeps in his bed - and this fact ruins his engagement. So naturally they become very angry with each other. Fill in the rest of the plot for yourself.

The ‘family ghost’ picture comes from the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and can be found on Flickr. Used in the past – and truly I think it was one of my best photo-description matches – for Topaz’s evening dress in I Capture the Castle.















Comments

  1. Isn't it fun when reading one book leads you to explore another writer or book, Moira? And this one does sound like a solid example of its time. The fancy dress aspect is interesting, and so is the setting. Little wonder you enjoyed it.

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    1. It's a real classic Golden Age mystery Margot - could have been made for me...

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  2. Glad that the DLS book is proving its worth! I'm awed by the sheer quality of her reviews at a time when she was working so hard.

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    1. Thanks Martin - and yes, that kept striking me too. It is obvious that she read all the books carefully, several a week, then wrote about them carefully too. Every week... How did she find time to do anything else?

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  3. The seamstress in me is looking at Photo #1 and itching to take up that crotch a few inches.

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    1. It is very baggy, I did wonder why it was quite so full: it looks as though it was the wrong size.

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    2. Evidently that was the style...

      https://www.pinterest.com/pin/316659417539010623/

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    3. Mmm. It's not a great look is it?

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  4. No place for this in the tubs, or the book of essays I'm afraid. Enjoy yourself!

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    1. Yes, I'm reading these so you don't have to.

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  5. The book of reviews by Sayers sounds interesting. The one book I have read by Anthony Gilbert was not that good, but a lot of the books bye that author have great covers. Where did you find a copy of this? I did not find much at all. And one very very expensive copy.

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    1. I think her books are very variable, I have had quite different reactions to them, but on the whole I enjoy the details of life, the clothes etc. I got this one from amazon uk, it wasn't particularly cheap and in fact wasn't in great condition... but I really wanted to read it!

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    2. On ABEbooks.com there is one at close to $20 (with shipping) that sounds in bad condition and a hardback for close to $150. So I will consider it hard to find and grab it if I see it anywhere at a decent price.

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    3. Oh gosh! I hope something turns up...

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    4. I can be patient. One time there was a Emma Lathen book (under a different pseudonym) that I wanted badly (skull cover). The lowest price for a paperback on ABEbooks was $100. Then a couple of years later Glen found a copy for me in San Jose for $4 and later I found another copy very cheap. Both in nice condition. And there are other nice Anthony Gilbert paperbacks out there while I wait.

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    5. Good for you. There's nothing to equal the pleasure of getting a much-wanted book at a bargain price is there?

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