Friday, December 8, 2017

FFB: 30 Days to Live - Anthony Gilbert

THE STORY: A shout of "Fire!" in Everard Hope's home The Brakes. Panic ensues as the occupants rush out of their rooms armed only with candles to find their way. A ripped carpet leads to a fatal tumble down the staircase. The miserly Hope is dead. The next day Hope's lawyer Midleton (one D, please) arrives to read the newly changed will. Not one of the relatives who had been invited to Hope's house will be inheriting a shilling. Instead the entire estate of £100,000 will go to Dorothea Capper, someone not one of the disinherited has ever heard of. But lucky Dorothea will only inherit the money and the house after the passage of thirty days. The relatives turn detectives to track down Miss Capper and try to bargain with her. But someone is plotting to ensure Miss Capper doesn't live to see that thirtieth day. Several attempts on her life are made. Is it just one person? Or they all out to do her in? When Arthur Crook enters the picture he suggests that Dorothea turn the tables on her attackers and fight back. But will the two succeed in their battle against the horde of greedy and murderous relatives.

THE CHARACTERS: This is another book with a cast of oddballs. Lucy Malleson (aka "Anthony Gilbert") was one of the Golden Age's best detective novel satirists. 30 Days to Live (1943) is probably more of a classist satire than it is a detective novel, but there is plenty of crime and a couple of mysteries to solve. Really what Malleson is having fun with is the presentation of a naive 38 year old woman who leads a sheltered life, spends too much of her time comparing real life with the plots of movies and popular fiction she devours with glee. The original title, The Mouse Who Wouldn't Play Ball, is an indication of just what we're to think of Dorothea Capper. At first a figure of utter ridicule in her brown dress, brown hat, brown shoes and bag to match plus her beige way of thinking Dorothea soon grows likeable as her predicament grows ever more perilous. She's lucky that Crook intervenes on her behalf to show her the cruelty of the world she tends to overlook and the opportunists who seem to want only the best for her when in fact they have their own selfish interests in mind. Dorothea slowly learns how to navigate herself in a world where suddenly she has become what appears to be the center of everyone's attention.

Arthur Crook, mysterydom's finest rogue lawyer turned detective, appears only incidentally in two scenes in the early portion of the book but will figure more prominently in the final third of the novel. He's just as shifty and unscrupulous as he always is. When he unveils his extravagantly melodramatic scheme to outwit the would-be killer and the other ruthless relatives we are definitely rooting for Dorothea to survive and earn what is rightfully hers.

Among the gold-digging relatives there is Julia Carberry who assigns herself as Dorothea's protector, barging into her home ahead of the others and directing Dorothea like a stern schoolmarm. There's another shifty lawyer in the mess -- Garth Hope, who tries his best to become Dorothea's advisor but learning too late that Crook has got to her first. Cecil Hope and Hugh Lacey are cousins and prospective suitors who both dare to invite Miss Capper out on dates in order to sway her to their side and wishing for her to split the inheritance with them. In the company of all three men bizarre accidents take place, one of them leading to a fatality of a stranger and the other two nearly landing Dorothea in her grave.

ATMOSPHERE: World War two is ever present throughout the story as a reminder of the real dangers of life that Dorothea and everyone have taken for granted. The nearly mundane references pop up so regularly it's as if war has become commonplace routine. Characters are pestered by having to draw the blackout curtains each night; a sign in a church pew reminds churchgoers to gather up their belongings, including their gas mask, before they leave; a newspaper advertisement sponsored by the National Savings Campaign illustrates foolish spending on imported goods by depicting a man and woman being threatened by a shark sporting a swastika on its fin, the caption reads "Would you buy if you had to swim for it?"; and small talk includes offhand mention of German bombs that have destroyed local landmarks and statues ("I remember seeing a broken arm lying at her feet the next morning.")

INNOVATIONS Stories about greedy relatives with murder on their minds hatching plots to do in the rightful heir date back to Gothic fiction of the late 18th century. From the persecuted Maud Ruthyn in Uncle Silas to the titular serial killer in Israel Rank inventive writers have found ways to ring out new changes in what could easily become tiresome and predictable. Malleson's clever mix of paranoid imaginings, genuine danger and classist satire all blend together in an unexpectedly witty take on this familiar tale of avarice and vanity. It's an unusual choice to have your protagonist such an utter fool at the mercy of such wily and treacherous villains and yet somehow it works. While we're busy laughing at Dorothea's often embarrassingly girlish behavior -- dressing up in an inappropriately bright yellow dress and overly elaborate hat to impress Hugh Lacey, for example -- we overlook the subtle manipulation Malleson has of making us complicit in the relatives' criminal thinking. We are privy to everyone's thoughts and we know that many of the characters are desperate for the money that Miss Capper may inherit. And she's such an idiot at times we almost want her to fall out of a window and be done with her. It's a devilish trick that Malleson plays with the reader in getting us to sympathize with Dorothea yet also wishing her dead almost simultaneously.

QUOTES: ...since the English persist in confounding morality with ability, he knew he didn't stand a chance [at promotion] if his name were being bandied about in the Divorce Court.

He looked across the room and caught Dorothea's eye and smiled. It was ravishing, that smile. [...] It made him look so young and youth in the other sex appeals to women as no virtue or mental qualification can do.

"When a lawyer's on speaking terms with the police," Crook was explaining, "you can hope to see Heaven opened and the angels of God descending on the sons of men."

...had Miss Capper asked him to prove that she hadn't bumped off her relatives one after the other, he would have accepted the commission and gone to all lengths to win the case. Not that he thought she had. All his professional life, he would mourn, he had been looking for Lucrezia Borgia in modern dress and it was his grief that, even if he did meet her, some other fellow would step in front of him and mess the matters up.


THINGS I LEARNED: More new cocktails added to my ever growing list of odd potent potables. This time the Grand Guignol. Hugh Lacey orders up several of these and Dorothea pops them back like a natural lush.  It sounds sickeningly sweet: 1.5 oz of dark rum, mixed with .75 oz of yellow chartreuse, cherry Heering (a liqueur I also had never heard of), and fresh lime juice. Shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Grand Guignol is usually used to describe lurid murder stories as it comes from the name of a puppet company that used to perform such plays. Then it became the name of the theater and its company of live actors who basically invented the idea of what slasher movies are all about. They performed plays that existed solely for gorey stage effects that shock and revolt the audience. Very odd name for such a cloying cocktail. I'd expect it to look bright red and not a muddy unappealing orange.

by-blow is a colloquial term or maybe a euphemism?) used when talking about illegitimate children. Merriam Webster tells me it's been around since the 16th century, but I don't think I've ever encountered it in Shakespeare, Webster, Johnson or in any of the many Jacobean revenge plays that I studied back in college days.

Jessie Matthews (left) as Dorothea and Beatrix Lehmann as
 Julia Carberry (now a sinister housekeeper!) in Candles at Nine (1944)
THE MOVIE: This is the second of three Anthony Gilbert novels that were adapted for the movies during the 1940s. Retitled Candles at Nine (in reference to Everard Hope's nightly ritual of shutting off the electricity in his house and resorting to candles for illumination) it stars Jessie Matthews as Miss Capper, Beatrix Lehmann as Julia Carberry, and John Stuart as an Arthur Crook stand-in of little import and mysterious origins named William Gordon. The movie preserves the basic story of Miss Capper needing to remain alive for one month in order to inherit but adds that she must live in The Brakes for those thirty days. The only other element that remains the same are the characters' names. The wit and satire is replaced by farce and music hall style comedy. The story is a messy mix of this low comedy and dire overacted melodrama. Only two of the five attempts on Miss Capper's life are included in the movie. Gordon gets attacked and trussed up in a closet at one point, something that absolutely does not happen to Crook. And need I mention the gratuitous musical numbers? At one point there is a two minute dance sequence that is supposed to show off Matthews' terpsichorean talents but it's a dreadful hodgepodge of ballet, jazz and tap dancing. She spends more time twirling about the stage and assisted into posing in arabesque positions by her tuxedo wearing partner than she does any real dancing. The movie is further ruined by the intrusion of the actors playing Hugh and Chris Lacey (renamed Charles) who serve as the music hall duo delivering risqué one-liners (two of them pretty dirty for a 1944 film) and pointless banter. Very little of the exciting story is retained. The ultimate indignity of this movie adaptation is that Julia Carberry, one of the best realized and complex characters, is transformed into a cheap Mrs. Danvers wannabe who bears not a trace of Malleson's original Julia. The movie is not recommended at all.

EASY TO FIND? This one is very scarce. At least based on what I could find in online bookselling catalogs. Less than ten copies seem to be out there for sale. I looked under both titles too. Copies using the original title The Mouse Who Wouldn't Play Ball are more common. I was surprised to see it was reprinted at least three times under that title, once as a large print edition done in the 1980s. The White Circle paperback edition using the title under which the book is reviewed here is from Collins' Toronto paperback reprint publishing arm and it's a true rarity; only four copies available. Those of you living in the UK may be lucky with local libraries and used bookstores.

This is now my second favorite of the Anthony Gilbert books I've read. It's highly recommended should you be lucky enough to find a copy. Next up is The Clock in the Hatbox which I managed to locate through a miracle of sorts. Eager to read and review that one since it comes highly recommended from Neer and a few other bloggers.

12 comments:

  1. Curse you, John! Curse you! Kate's recent discovery of Gilbert had inspired me to return to her work and The Clock in the Hat Box was at the top of my stack, which I would have gotten around to right after finishing up with the three Fearn titles. This is payback for Pattern of Murder, isn't it? ;)

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    1. I call upon the spirit of Beatrix Lehmann to let loose with one of her evil laughs that made Candles at Nine so annoying: Mwah-hahahahahaha!

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  2. Oh jeez, John, just when you make me want to read this - you yank out the chances of my ever doing so. You are a cruel man. :)

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    1. Not I, the cruel one! Check your email for a lead on the cheapest available copy.

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  3. "It's a devilish trick that Malleson plays with the reader in getting us to sympathize with Dorothea yet also wishing her dead almost simultaneously."

    OhhhhOhhhh seems like Gilbert was walking on a tight-rope over here. She really pulls us in two directions even in MURDER COMES HOME. Thanks John for this review of what seems an entertaining book. I can only hope that the Open Library wallahs get a copy of it.

    And I am so-so looking forward to your review of CLOCK IN THE HATBOX, which to me is the best of her books.

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  4. Obviously sorry to hear that the movie is so poor as love the sound of the book - at least MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (from Gilbert's THE WOMAN IN RED) was a terrific little adaptation. Must get me some Gilbert real soon! Thanks for making it all sound so tantalising John :)

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  5. Alright, that's it, no more pussyfooting around! I've been putting off and putting off reading Gilbert. You've pushed me over the edge. Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to the Kindle Bookstore I go...

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  6. I've been able to find copies in two libraries in my area; this is being added to my growing WorldCat list.

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  7. Had to go straight off and try to find a copy of this, it was the all-brown outfit that did it... Which is your favourite Gilbert book?

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    1. I've read only five so far. My favorite still remains Death Knocks Three Times, oddly enough the first Gilbert mystery I read.

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  8. I wish someone would put out ebook versions.

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    1. Maybe Santa will read this and grant your wish, Mat!

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