Death in Fancy Dress by Anthony Gilbert

Blackmailers and boyfriend trouble…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Tony Keith meets his old schoolfriend Jeremy Freyne in a bazaar in India and they decide to travel home together. Tony is a lawyer who seems to take on sensitive international missions and has contacts with the Secret Service. Jeremy is a kind of adventurer – a man with no profession and no money who survives on his wits, hurrying from one madcap scheme to another. But now he’s decided it’s time to marry Hilary, so thinks it would only be gentlemanly to pop home to England and inform her. But when they arrive in England, Tony gets two urgent messages – one from his Secret Service contact and the other from Lady Nunn, Hilary’s stepmother, both requesting him to go to the Abbey where Lady Nunn lives to avert a horrible danger. Jeremy of course tags along since danger and Hilary are the two things he cares about most…

There has been a recent spate of suicides, all people who were rich and well-connected. The authorities have concluded that blackmailers are at work, ultimately driving their victims to despair, and they think that someone who lives at the Abbey or in the surrounding area is involved. This is what Tony’s contact wants him to look into, giving assistance to the man they already have on the spot – Arthur Dennis, who at first impression is a soft-spoken gentle sort of man but who turns out to have a steely resolve and muscles to match. When Jeremy finds out that Hilary has become engaged to Arthur he is determined to win her anyway, but both men are a bit gobsmacked when she then informs them that she intends to marry someone else instead, her cousin Ralph. So when Ralph turns up dead during a fancy dress party, the two men are determined to find out who killed them, to save themselves from suspicion and to restore Hilary’s rather dubious reputation.

Anthony Gilbert is a pseudonym used by Lucy Malleson, who also wrote Portrait of a Murderer, a book I enjoyed very much, under yet another name, Anne Meredith. This one unfortunately didn’t work so well for me. While the set up is quite interesting, the plot feels loose and untidy with quite a lot of intuitive leaping required by our intrepid heroes. But it’s really the characterisation that lets it down, I think, with none of them developing much depth and most of them being quite unappealing. Tony might as well not be there for all the impact he has on the plot. Jeremy is more fun, especially at the beginning when we learn about his wild ways, but he seems to fade rather into the background as the thing progresses.

Arthur – well, it’s an odd thing, but I often find women writers in those far off days (it was published in 1933) are far more forgiving of their male characters than male writers of the same era. Arthur frankly bullies and threatens Hilary and she admits to being frightened of him, but I think we’re supposed to find him attractive! When he orders her around as if she were a disobedient child and then grabs her so violently he bruises her arm, I rather went off him, I’m afraid. But Hilary is drawn as a wild child who needs a strong man to control her, and seems to accept that need herself, though she can’t decide which bullying tyrant to pick – there are so many! I’m sure none of this would have been problematic at the time – after all Cagney was shoving grapefruits in women’s faces to great acclaim in the cinema at roughly the same period – but it makes it feel rather more dated than most of the vintage crime I’ve been reading recently.

However, the working out of the plot is entertaining – not totally convinced it’s fair-play but then I rarely manage to work them out even when they are, and I certainly didn’t get close to guessing this one. The book also includes two bonus short stories, Horseshoes for Luck and The Cockroach and the Tortoise, and to be honest I enjoyed both of them more than the actual book! Overall, then, not one of my favourites from the BL Crime Classic series, but still an enjoyable enough way to while away a few hours.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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29 thoughts on “Death in Fancy Dress by Anthony Gilbert

  1. You make such an interesting point, FictionFan, about the way characters are treated by male and female authors. I hadn’t thought about it, really, but it makes sense. Definitely food for thought… I’m sorry to hear this one didn’t do it for you, but I can completely understand why. For me, anyway, the characters have to be at least a little interesting – at least enough so that I care what happens to them (even if I want something bad to happen… 😉 ). Add to that a plot that isn’t really focused, and I can see why this didn’t really draw you in.

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    • Attitudes have changed so much over the last decades, and it certainly wasn’t always men who glamorised the idea of the masterful male. Mind you, when I see some of the covers of present-day romance fiction, I wonder how much has really changed! 😉 But it was really the lack of well developed characters that let this one down – a pity, but there are bound to be some that don’t work even in the best series!

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  2. Why so many pseudonyms?? Very weird. And I agree with Margot about the point you made about female writers being so forgiving. I need to examine that tendency in my own books.

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    • I don’t know – this one was more like an attempt at a traditional mystery whereas the other was a kind of psychological portrait so maybe she felt they were different genres? Yes, it certainly wasn’t always men who glamorised the masterful male, for sure!

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  3. I must agree with the points raised. I can’t see the point of pseudonyms unless the author is writing in different genres.
    It’s likely to put me off when female writers treat violence almost as an acceptable form of behaviour. It made me laugh the other day when a wife was refered to as ‘my wench’ I’d never seen that before.

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    • This one was a kind of attempt at a traditional mystery whereas the other one was more of a psychological drama so maybe she felt they were different genre? But it does make it all very confusing.
      Yes, it’s amazing how attitudes have changed so much in a relatively short space of time. I’d have read a book like this with no problem forty years ago, and might even have found Arthur’s “masterful” ways quite attractive. Nowadays I just want to hit him over the head with a frying pan and banish him from the land… 😉

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  4. This sounded quite silly and fun in the beginning, I don’t know why these women are soft on bullying men reminded me of Dorothy L Sayers. I do hope Death in White Pyjamas is going to be good!

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    • I liked wild Jeremy in the beginning but the rest of the characters were a bit flat. I know – and yet attitudes have changed so much in a relatively short space of time. I’m pretty sure Arthur’s “masterful” ways wouldn’t have bothered me if I’d read this forty years ago, but now it seems totally out of place. I wanted to tell her to get a) a grip and b) a job, and leave marriage till she found a decent human being… 😉

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  5. I’m right there with you on the points you’ve made about the importance of characters we can relate to, root for, or love to hate. In fact, I just put aside a more recent book by a bestselling author when I read the first 22 pages and found I couldn’t get into it … at all. The characters were flat and frankly, unappealing, and the storyline was a yawn. It happens. At least you got two good short stories out of yours!

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    • Yes, I read another one recently that kept bouncing around for ages so that I couldn’t even work out who the main character was supposed to be, and by the time it became clear I’d lost all interest. I don’t necessarily have to like the characters, though I prefer to have at least one that I do, but I have to care what happens to them. I guess that why series are so popular – we already have an emotional connection to the lead character going in.

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  6. Too bad this ended up as something of a misfire. The basic story outline sounds as if it could have been quite entertaining, but it seems as if the characterisation was a mess. Maybe this writer is better in short story form?

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    • Yes, it was a pity, and the plot was pretty messy too. I don’t know enough about her to be sure – I don’t know that she was very prolific. I did enjoy Portrait of a Murderer which is exactly what the title says, and in it I actually praised the characterisation, so I don’t know why it didn’t work in this one. Maybe she was still trying to find her style…

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    • I know, they’ve been so good recently that it feels disappointing when one is less than stellar, but there are bound to be some that don’t work so well – you can’t please every reader with every book! Happily the next one was great… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Cagney should have skipped this one, and stuck to Yankee Doodle Dandy fare. That slimy smirk at the end of the clip was an awful piece of acting.

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    • Hahaha – I tend to agree, although I adored Cagney so much when I was young I still find it difficult to be critical. I think he was my first love, from about age 4 when I first saw him dance with Bob Hope in the Seven Little Foys. 😂

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    • Yes, I’m sure Arthur was attractive as the “masterful” male back in the day, but now I just wanted to hit him with a brick and tell her to grow up and stop being a doormat! See, that’s what feminism has done to us all – destroyed our ability to enjoy vintage mysteries… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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