The Clock in the Hatbox by Anthony Gilbert


published 1939



Clock in Hatbox




Viola Ross was the kind of person who invites gossip. She had married, at twenty-three, a man twice her age, a widower with a son at school. When Ross brought her back with him, after a visit he had been paying to a sick sister, we all gasped. It’s one of the mysteries of life how men of his type contrive to attract and marry women of hers. He was a pepper-and- salt little man, a bit thin on top even then, with fair hair that straggled above a high bony forehead, a habit of making a suit look five years old and shapeless when he had worn it twice, and an absent manner that made him the butt—not always in a very friendly way—of most of his colleagues. She, on the other hand, was the Rossetti type, a deep-bosomed auburn-haired woman. You turned to look after her if you met her on the street, and you went on remembering her long after she was out of sight.


commentary: This is a very unusual and cleverly structured murder story, and quite an unnerving book. You keep thinking you have got a handle on it, that you know what kind of crime book it is, then it subverts itself one more time.

The narrator is on the jury for a woman accused of murdering her husband: this is a small English town where everyone knows each other (apparently this does not stop someone being a juror). He is convinced she is innocent and holds out: this is before the days of majority verdicts, and so the woman will be tried again. Our narrator (whom we eventually find out is called Richard Arnold) decides to prove her innocent in the time before the re-trial, and starts investigating.

So far so Strong Poison (the Dorothy L Sayers book of 1930) – in fact one of the characters says to Arnold
“I don’t know why you’re so keen to get her off, unless you’re like Lord Peter Wimsey, who was so much intrigued by meeting a murderess that he proposed at once.”
The setups are almost identical, although Arnold (of course) always denies any attraction to Viola Ross: he just has an interest in justice.

He hooks up with Gilbert’s series character, the very slightly shady and very vulgar and common Arthur Crook (always a pleasure). Together they pursue various lines of enquiry. There are possibilities – an estranged son, in particular. And what exactly is the connection between the son and Viola? There’s a long way to go, and some very unexpected twists and turns.

It’s all quite bleak, there is no high romance as there was in the Dorothy L Sayers book, everyone is a bit grim. There are some funny aphoristic overviews:
It is always difficult to persuade English people of a case of parricide. They are far more ready to believe in guilty wives. Wives often can’t escape their bonds except by death, but young men have a number of other outlets.
Reminiscent of George Orwell on The Decline of the English Murder.

And a few moments like this one:
Derek looked rather washed out. I wasn’t surprised. I heard he had been there for over an hour, and an hour of Colonel Friar’s conversation would weary the most powerful physique.
But generally this is a serious, rather dark book, and a very confounding one.

John Norris over at Pretty Sinister Books has a very good and very full review here, which I strongly recommend. He says that the book ‘is rather a landmark mystery novel that for some reason is NEVER mentioned in the many studies of the detective novel’ and he is right. He also says ‘the true appeal in this novel is Gilbert's flair for an unusual treatment of a familiar plot that mixes courtroom mystery, detective novel, pursuit tale and Hitchcockian suspense into one mindblowing crime novel.’ That’s a great description: the story just keeps changing its shape…

The Clock in the Hatbox is, however, disappointingly short of clothes descriptions. But it is very much about male/female relations, so I chose to use this image of the era – one I found in the very early days of the blog and am delighted to finally feature. The photograph is from the Powerhouse Museum in Australia, and shows a couple at the races in the 1930s.

There are a number of other Anthony Gilbert books on the blog – click here to see a list.


















Comments

  1. Moira, I like John's description of this novel, too; it's certainly intriguing enough to start reading Anthony Gilbert's novels.

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    1. Prashant, I think you would like her books - and there's plenty of them!

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  2. You know, Moira, I thought of Strong Poison as soon as I started reading your post. I can see the similarity. And I love it that that's mentioned in the book. It does sound as though it has a darker tone than you might expect. One of those unusual little gems that not enough people know.

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    1. Yes - John Norris says he doesn't understand why it isn't featured in all the histories of detective fiction, and I can absolutely see what he means. (Words that always intrigue another mystery fan... )

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  3. You are going to be my undoing, Moira! This sounds great and I want to read it, but, really, the tottering TBR pile . . .

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    1. Chrissie, your two comments posted a few minutes apart made me laugh like a drain! You have such self-control... at least it is not a physical book to make the piles totter...

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    2. Glad to have been the occasion of innocent amusement . . .

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  4. I really have to try Gilbert! And this one sounds so intriguing . . . IF I can find it! Thanks, Moira!

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    1. Brad - I have just downloaded an E-book for £2.99.

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    2. Brad, it really is a good one. I always claim to be not THAT keen on Anthony Gilbert, but I am accumulating her books at a rate of knots. A bit like Chrissie really...

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  5. Why is it called "The Clock in the Hatbox"? Does it mean something like "a clockwork orange"? It sounds so absurd it gives me Alice in Wonderland feelings somehow. Or is there a perfectly logical explanation connected to the plot?

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    1. A very good question. I refrained from going into this, because I think it is an excellently fascinating title, but I don't personally think the plot justifies it. (Although others think differently.) An alarm clock was stuffed into a box during the course of the night of the crime, and the assumption is that it would have ruined the plan if it went off. This fact is explained in the final pages, but it doesn't seem to me to be the stunner it is meant to be, and the whole plot could have managed without it.. .but perhaps I missed something. I do think it is a great title though!

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  6. I did not get along that well with the first Arthur Crook mystery I read, A CASE FOR MR CROOK, which is a later one. It also is a Green Door edition with a lovely cover, probably why I bought it. I do have a few others to read. This one sounds good and different, maybe I will find it some day.

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    1. Tracy, I have had very different reactions to her books, so I know how you feel. But have had a run of good ones - reading Pretty Sinister Books, and the comments, has had me hovering them up, and the ones John and friends recommend have all been good...

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  7. Not one that grabs my attention, I'm afraid.

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    1. It's actually more dark than cozy, but I won't try to persuade you!

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