Debbie: "Isn't he a lady killer!"Gomez Addams: "Acquitted."- Addams Family Values (1993).
Between the closing years of the 1920s and the start of the 1970s, Lucy Beatrice Malleson produced a torrent of detective and thriller stories under an array of different pennames, but the most successful ones appeared under the byline of Anthony Gilbert – and usually starred the criminal lawyer-cum-detective, Arthur Crook. Great name, eh? I have been wanting to sample them for a while, and had enough of them laying around the place to do so, but only just took a first crack at them after serendipitously stumbling over a copy of Something Nasty in the Woodshed (1942). It was simply impossible to let a book with such a spellbinding title languish on my to-be-read pile for even a single day!
Something Nasty in the Woodshed interlocks the plot of a suspenseful thriller, in which a predatory lady killer hunts the lonely hearts columns in search for inexperienced spinsters and gullible widows, with elements of detection – which in this particular case has nothing to do with uncovering the identity of the murderer, determining motives or figuring out how the foul deed was done, but what this individual has stashed away in the titular woodshed.
The characters who take center stage in this story are Agatha Forbes, a spinster, rapidly approaching middle-age, with a private income who gave up youth to take care of her father, and Edmund Durward, an attractive, charming young man and a professional seducer – who frequently trots overgrown pathways that usually lead to a cemetery where he disposes himself of yet another spouse who met with a unfortunate accident. It's never explicitly mentioned in the book how many wives he buried, but there were definitely more than one of them.
When the reader is introduced to Agatha Forbes, we meet a spinster of independent means who lives an emotionally isolated life ever since her father passed away. She fills some of her time with club activities, where she found one or two companions, but these shallow commitments failed to chase the loneliness from her heart – which prompts her one day to respond to a matrimonial advertisement in the lonely hearts column. The lonesome writer, who turns out to be Edmund Durward, is looking for a gentle woman, aged 35-42, of independent means who's not averse to a quiet life in the country and family ties are not essential in a prospective marriage. This description seems to have been written with the unsuspicious spinster in mind and naturally she receives an invitation to come visit this self-proclaimed lonely heart.
What ensues is an excellent suspense story, in which the deceivingly charming Edmund swoons the inexperienced Agatha off her feet to carry her into a wedding chapel and the couple installs themselves in his desolated house, which is habitually haunted by the ghost of a woman, in a remote village – where the blushing bride expects to spend a long, but uneventful, life with a loving husband at her side. However, as one month after another recedes from the calendar, her husband's tender caresses slowly turns into a strangle hold and as his control over her money increases the moment that a doctor will scrawl his signature on her death certificate creeps nearer with each passing day.
I don't want to give away too much of what exactly went down in the first half of the story and how that part will be concluded, but it's easily the best portion of the book. It's a very disquieting account of a human predator stalking its prey before hungrily pouncing on it and the bleak, desolated setting contributed a lot to the unnerving atmosphere. There's also a fantabulous scene with the ghost that will play an important part in the final resolution of the novel.
The second part of the story deals with the surprising aftermath of what happened at that deserted house, but the resolution isn't nearly as gripping as the set-up, nevertheless, it's not entirely without interest, either. Edmund engages in a clever cat-and-mouse game with the local authorities and Arthur Crook tramples around in the background as an all-knowing deity, in the earthly guise of a tawdry, scarlet beetle, who reminded me, at times, of Sir Henry Merrivale. I wonder if Arthur Crook was a conscious homage to the Old Man seeing as Lucy Malleson was deeply in love with John Dickson Carr.
But this portion of the book also suffered from a few notable problems. Somewhere around page 150, when the story had run its course, a new element is introduced to the plot by simply contrasting two opposing solutions – which is a nifty and crafty plot device to rejuvenate a plot except when the reader is already aware of the entire truth. Therefore it did nothing for the story. It was also a bit of a let down to see how easily Crook let a careful, meticulous and cunning killer like Edmund Durward slip up in less than ten pages. Especially when the eerie pond, enclosed by mourning trees whose branches drip with the suggestion of ghosts, was simply imploring to be used as a backdrop for a dramatic dénouement. Oh well...
Despite the ending, which left me a little bit under whelmed, this is an outstanding novel of suspense, "calculated to intrigue you, to stir your nerves, to offer you a precarious situation," while also throwing one or two surprises at you along the way. Yes, the story lacked the extra two or three paces required to reach a first place position and qualify as a five-star masterpiece, but four, well-deserved silver stars is nothing to be ashamed of!
Something Nasty in the Woodshed is a very rewarding crime novel and an excellent introduction to Anthony Gilbert. I recommend it without reservations and expect more of her books to show up on this blog in the weeks ahead of us.