Thursday, 31 December 2009

"Death Takes a Wife" by Anthony Gilbert and "The Rasp" by Philip MacDonald

As an exercise, I recently jotted down a list of 28 Golden Age detective writers and ran a search of them on the Camden Libraries database. Of the 28, only 7 featured, and even then in some cases with a solitary book lodged in the basement of a reserve collection. No criticism intended of Camden, who operate a great service, and Swiss Cottage library is surely one of the best in the country, but it seems a little sad that books that have given so much pleasure over the years should be so easily consigned to oblivion. I have taken it upon myself to track down as many books by these authors as I can, by various means, and will report as and when I am successful.

One which Swiss Cottage did kindly retrieve from the basement for me was Death Takes a Wife by Anthony Gilbert. One which they were able to extract from the bowels of another libray was The Rasp by Philip MacDonald. They turned out to be very different books, one of which had stood the test of time much more successfully than the other.

Anthony Gilbert was the nom de plume of the lady writer Lucy Malleson (1899 - 1973), who also wrote fiction as Anne Meredith, and some works for children under her own name. What on earth has happened to all these wonderfully prolific writers who wrote under several different names?

Her style is reminiscent of Ngaio Marsh and I was very impressed by this book. The premise is an interesting one. A young woman marries a man whose first wife she knows (because she nursed her) to have died in mysterious circumstances. Soon we become embroiled in a round of blackmail and murder all revolving around one central question: did he or did he not murder his first wife? A rough diamond is retained to clear both husband and second wife (who comes under suspicion for a later killing).

I have to say that the mystery is not a particularly baffling one. Enough clues are scattered around to enable the reader to guess the truth well before the end. However the book is very well written indeed, especially in so far as it gets inside the head of the young woman, who is most sympathetically portrayed. To me, this did not feel a dated book, any more than, say, Marsh feels dated and I would recommend it to any devotee of murder mysteries. My only surprise is that more "Anthony Gilbert" books are not around - Camden have only one in the whole borough.

The Rasp by Philip McDonald (1899-1980), on the other hand, is dated. It reads like a cross between Buchan and Sapper. If you enjoy these two (and I do) then you will find it a good read, but if you don't then be warned. The story itself is well done, a sort of locked room mystery with an ingenious solution. It is also sweetly romantic; no fewer then three couples get hitched in the course of the closing chapters. Interestingly, MacDonald later moved to California where he became a successful screenwriter, but was during the 1930's one of the best-selling English thriller writers.

More updates on these lesser-known Golden Age writers as and when books become available. In the meantime, readers might like to investigate the post on Edmind Crispin in the blog archive.

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