Reviewed by Harriet
Subtitled ‘A Christmas Crime Story’, this is a remarkably accomplished and fascinating novel by a writer better known under her other pseudonym, Anthony Gilbert. It was much praised when it appeared in 1933: Dorothy Sayers called it ‘powerful and impressive’ and wrote of the ‘fine inevitability in the plot structure which gives it true tragic quality’. What she’s referring to here is the fact that this is a book in which the identity of the murderer is known almost from the start; we even get to watch the murder taking place, and are privy to their thoughts and feelings from start to finish. Here’s how the novel begins:
Adrian Gray was born in May 1862 and met his death through violence, at the hands of one of his own children, at Christmas 1931. The crime was instantaneous and unpremeditated, and the murderer was left staring from the weapon on the table to the dead man in the shadow of the tapestry curtains, not apprehensive, not yet afraid, but incredulous and dumb.
Gray lives in a remote country house, and is in the habit of inviting his six surviving children, together with their spouses, to spend Christmas there with him, though he is on bad terms with them all. Two of his daughters, the shrewish spinster Amy and the unhappily divorced Isobel, live with him permanently. Then there’s the ambitious politician Richard with his society wife Laura; Olivia, married to Eustace Moore, an unscrupulous financier; Hildebrand, known as Brand, a struggling artist with a large, feckless family (not invited) and the black sheep of the family; and, the only happy people among them, Ruth with her pleasant, unambitious lawyer husband Miles Avery.
It soon becomes clear that several of these people have powerful reasons for wishing him dead, most of them connected with money. Richard has been having an affair and his mistress is now backmailing him; he can’t pay and the scandal will ruin his career and his chances of a peerage. Eustace has been engaged in some very dodgy dealings and he himself, and all the innocent people he has persuaded to invest, are now on the brink of ruin. And Brand, sick to death of slaving in a drawing office to support his unfaithful wife and their five chidren, at least one of which he knows to be not his own, wants to leave the lot of them behind and disappear to Paris to paint. Unfortunately, as initially only Eustace knows, Gray is also facing financial ruin owing to his bad advice.
This is where is becomes very difficult to review the novel without spoilers. Suffice it to say that an arrest is made, and most people, though shocked, tend to think it is well deserved. The true perpetrator, however, has arranged things so that some of Gray’s much depleted fortune comes their way. And for a long time it looks as if the falsely accused person will hang. Finally, though, a family member starts to think hard about what actually happened, and realises there are flaws in the prosecution’s case. Can the murderer be brought to justice before an innocent person goes to the gallows?
There’s a great deal to love about this story. The writing is excellent, the psychology totally credible, the plot fascinating. The novel skilfully evokes the financial instability and anxieties, even among the relatively well-to-do, of the period in which it was written, known as the Great Depression. But the most interesting and admirable thing about it is the way the moral issues are handled. The murderer, whose thoughts and even diaries are made plain, is by no means a wholly admirable character, but as the book progresses they become more and more sympathetic, and indeed by the end I would say actually heroic – this is what Dorothy Sayers means when she says the novel has ‘true tragic quality’. This, added to the fact that the falsely accused person is someone who most people think richly deserves to die, gives the self-appointed detective considerable pause, and their agonising about whether to do the right thing adds a second layer of psychological realism to the novel.
To celebrate the fact that this is the 50th British Library Crime Classic, the book has been issued in both hardback and paperback formats, and has a bonus in the form of an essay by Martin Edwards on Christmas Crimes of the Golden Age. A perfect Christmas present for your nearest and dearest, or of course for yourself.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Anne Meredith, Portrait of a Murderer (British Library, 2017). 978-0712352451, 304pp., hardback.
BUY Portrait of a Murderer from the Book Depository.