(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Lucy Beatrice Malleson began her career with a traditional novel that failed to find a publisher, and she was equally unsuccessful with her first crime novel. Assuming that publishers retained a lingering prejudice against female authors of thrillers, she submitted her next manuscript as Anthony Gilbert. This book, The Tragedy at Freyne, received enthusiastic reviews and was favorably compared to E. C. Bentley’s classic novel Trent’s Last Case (1913, revised 1929).

Encouraged, Gilbert rapidly produced a spate of mystery novels—ten with Scott Egerton, an ambitious young politician, as detective, and two with a French sleuth, M. Dupuy. Although clearly apprentice work, they reveal Gilbert’s talent for rapid action and complex plots. It was not until the appearance of Arthur Crook in Murder by Experts (1936), however, that Gilbert achieved a popular success.

All subsequent books by Anthony Gilbert center on Arthur Crook, a raffish and bibulous Cockney solicitor who is the antithesis of aristocratic intellectuals such as Lord Peter Wimsey and Roderick Alleyn. Most of the novels concern some unworldly individual, often a young woman, who becomes trapped in a tangle of events involving serious crime, usually murder. Crook begins with the proposition “My clients are always innocent,” and he sets about proving his claim by hard work, a well-honed intuition, and an airy disregard for legal protocol. Optimistic and energetic, he functions more as honorary uncle and rescuer than as counsel for the defense.

In his view of crime, Crook is largely pragmatic, and he is not given to speculation on the psychology of wrongdoers. He supports the theory of the “invisible witness,” that unobserved, ordinary person who has happened to notice a vital clue. He uses this insight to trace the actual murderer, believing that an innocent victim requires not merely acquittal but complete vindication as well. Pleased to be known as “The Criminals’ Hope and the Judges’ Despair,” he never accepts as a client anyone he knows to be guilty as charged.

Crook’s methods are as practical as his philosophy. Often, he acts as his own sleuth, but on occasion he employs assistants, both amateur and professional; chiefly he depends on his subordinate, Bill Parsons, a former prisoner. His rough-and-ready methods inevitably lead his more conventional colleagues to consider him a disgrace to the profession.

Whatever his fellow lawyers may think of him, Crook shows exemplary devotion to his calling. A bachelor, he appears to have no living relatives and few interests outside his work. He does not write poetry, play cricket, or collect rare prints. His principal recreation is imbibing beer; much of his basic research involves listening and observing in some shabby London pub. His only other enthusiasm seems to be motoring; he drives a venerable but well-maintained Rolls Royce. Always dressed in a shiny brown suit of conspicuous inelegance, he addresses most women as “Sugar.” His speech is a mixture of Cockney slang and odd quotations from the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare, Robert Browning, and other familiar poets.

No Dust in the Attic

The widely reprinted No Dust in the Attic (1962)...

(The entire section is 1349 words.)