The Bell of Death by Anthony Gilbert


The Bell of Death by Anthony Gilbert

published 1939



There is a perhaps surprising number of crime books in which a body is found in a church – the vestry, the belfry, in the pews…

Here on the blog we have had Villainy at Vespers by Joan Cockin, Murder Before Evensong by Richard Coles, The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers, His Burial Too by Catherine Aird. Many of the works of Kate Charles feature mayhem in churches, and PD James’s A Taste of Death has two bodies in a crypt. And there are dozens of clerical sleuths, priests and nuns - you wonder when they get time to say their prayers. There’s a Simenon story where the early-morning altar boy sees a body on his way to 6 o’clock Mass. (In the street, not in the church).

This book starts with a church bell that doesn’t ring, or stops too soon. What has happened to Ferris, the verger? Everyone assumes he has been taken ill, and the body in the vestry isn’t found for some time. And we can’t be sure who it is anyway. Gilbert’s series character Arthur Crook is involved from the start - he often doesn’t arrive till a long way in, so this is a nice change, he is always a joy, and perks up her books. [Anthony Gilbert was a pseudonym for Lucy Malleson.]

Arthur Crook's investigations take him to various convincing areas of London, working class people, dingy private hotels, people working hard at their lives, and again it is a nice change from the upper classes so often featuring in crime novels of the time. It is a very complicated and involved story, and there is the usual Gilbert problem of a lack of care and edits, and sudden leaps and lack of explanation. Why would you have a character called Bell in a book called The Bell of Death? The key couple have a sister each, one called Elsa and the other Elsie, which I think is just lazy if it’s not going to be relevant or commented on.

On the front cover of my edition, there is a quote from a review of this book, saying ‘No author is more skilled at making a good story seem brilliant’. Very hard to parse, and is it a compliment or not? (Invisible Event says definitely shade... )

And on the plus side there is an Orwell-esque and terrifying description of a Common Lodging House

“You know what the beds are like,” said Brady. “Sort of coffins a few inches off the floor, and packed as tight as dead’uns in a mortuary. Any chap that knows the ropes, when he takes off his boots stands the feet of his bed inside ’em, so they can’t be pinched while he’s asleep—see? Every fellow looks at the next man’s boots as he comes into the room, boots being ’ard to come by, see?... Well, that night, a chap came in wearing a pair of first-class boots. Little chap ’e was, and he didn’t seem to know much, because when ’e took ’is boots off ’e left ’em by the side of his bed. I knew ’ow it would be, the minute they dowsed the light. It was like rats, if you’ve ever ’eard rats moving in the dark. Every man jack in that room creeping out to pinch those boots…’


And in this world of seedy rooms and struggling families, a returned soldier is allowed to say this:

It did genuinely seem to me infamous that I should be expected to risk my life defending the property of men who had stayed safely at home, and hadn’t the right to demand some of that property—enough to keep body and soul together—when I returned.


And, as always with Gilbert, some nice lines:

 Burton, good fellow, dealt with such nuisances far more effectively than his colleague. “Do you want to get me six months for contempt of court?” he would shout down the mouthpiece, and the use of even this simple legal term almost invariably reduced the speaker to silence.


Canon Astell looked as though his face had been made of a piece of strong brown paper, crumpled up and partially smoothed again.


'I fancy her husband had always kept her pretty short, not perhaps intentionally, but . . .” the proverbial lawyer’s shrug intending to convey a load of meaning, but actually as Crook knew, concealing concealing the fact that he didn’t quite know how to end his sentence, completed his speech.


This is an interesting section to unpack:

“Chaps like that don’t seem to know about Savile Row,” was the unexpected retort.

Crook looked up thoughtfully. One of Lord Trenchard’s Young Ladies, he presumed. “Wore quite recognisable underclothes,” he went on, in bland tones. “Mostly it’s the other way round.”

“Plenty of philanthropic societies ready to help a fellow,” said Lord Trenchard’s protégé loftily. Crook thought that when the authorities had done with him he stood a pretty good chance with the B.B.C. Now that television was becoming so popular a voice alone wasn’t enough; you wanted features, an air . . .

Lord Trenchard was a very distinguished man, with a long and epic-sounding career: he served in the army, then went on to help found the RAF. Later he moved on to the Metropolitan Police and changed their way of training: he started the Hendon Police College. I haven’t been able to find any other instances of ‘Lord Trenchard’s Young Ladies’ but assume it is a reference to the new, more educated and up-market policemen who often turn up in crime books of the era. (There were ‘Lord Trenchard’s brats’ – they were young men who were apprenticed to the RAF in another of his schemes. Honestly, just reading about everything he did is exhausting.)

And then, who’d’ve thought television would be a consideration right then? The BBC had started broadcasting TV in late 1936, but it was available only within London and the surrounding areas, and only ran for two hours a day. Interestingly, the coronation of George VI in 1937 was broadcast – a very different look from the recent coronation of King Charles III, with only one other in between. Television closed down at the outbreak of war, to return in June 1946. (In an article I wrote for the Guardian - link in this post - you can find my surprise at a reference to television by F Scott Fitzgerald in 1934)

And one more diversion: Crook ‘jammed on his hard billycock hat.’ As I was looking for a picture to represent him, I had a clear image of a billycock hat – something like a porkpie hat, or a fedora, maybe a trilby, although ‘hard’ didn’t quite seem to fit.

 Then I looked it up and a billycock is a bowler hat, round and symmetrical and hard. I worked out why I was so surprised by this, and pinned it down. Enid Blyton wrote a book (1957) called Five Go To Billycock Hill, and the hill was distinct because:

‘would that be Billycock Hill, do you think? It’s rather a funny shape.’…

Billycock Hill was soon very near. It certainly was a strange shape, very like an old-fashioned hat.

Which definitely suggests to me a hat with a dip in it.  Perhaps Enid B knew no better than I did.

There is also an expression of a ‘cocked hat’ (as in ‘knocking something into a cocked hat’) as that is definitely a specific thing which does NOT resemble a bowler hat – this is a particularly fancy one.

(In this post/book I learned that chapeau melon is another name for a bowler hat.)

Two men poring over a piece of paper – Sam Hood collection, a favourite blog resource, pictures of Australian life in the first half of the 20th century. All human life etc. Three men looking shifty, and in hats I might have thought to be billycocks, same source. Both photos had a look of Crook and his associates, accomplices and interviewees.



  1. The word "television" existed before the thing. For example, in the 1929 film The Vagabond Queen one of the characters is trying to invent a working television.

    1. And did people complain from the very start about its being a combination of a Greek and a Latin word?

  2. This does sound like a bit of a complicated plot, Moira. I do like Gilbert's writing style, even if there are issues like Elsie/Elsa. I like the atmosphere he weaves in the stories. Interesting point about the number of fictional bodies found in and around churches. Hmm....

    1. Yes, I always end up forgiving her the carlessness because I enjoy the books - and I think you would be the same Margot!

  3. Funny, I once read that the French subtitled version of the Avengers (Rigg and Macnee) was Bottes Cuire et Chapeau Melon.. excuse any errors, I'm going by memory.
    Chris Wallace

    1. Ha, I actually thought of Steed's "hard" bowler hat when I read the billycock description! I'm no expert, but I had an impression that fedoras and other such hats were a 20th-century thing. I think of bowlers as more old-fashioned.

    2. In one episode Steed had an eye exam in which he had to identify various types of hats. Of course he knew them all.

    3. I love all this extra information, thank you both!

  4. “You know what the beds are like,” said Brady. “Sort of coffins a few inches off the floor, and packed as tight as dead’uns in a mortuary." Sounds like junior enlisted berthing on a warship.

    1. I can totally see the comparison. Not for those of us who cherish our comforts...
      Probably comparable with the boys' accommodation in very expensive public (ie private) schools of the 1930s (and much later) - good preparation for the army or prison.


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