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.