"A woman's chief weapon is her tongue and she never lets it rust! Apt, eh? Devilish apt!"
- Colonel Malloy (John Bude's Death on the Riviera, 1952)
Elizabeth Gill was born into a literary, artistically-inclined family that had already produced illustrators, water-colorists, novelists and journalists, but Gill would go on to climb to the loftiest heights of the literary world by penning a trio of mystery novels – all of them featuring an eccentric painter/detective named Benvenuto Brown. Yes, I seriously consider detective stories to be the purest and highest form of literature.
According to our resident genre-historian, Curt Evans, Gill could have become a marquee name in the genre, but we were "cruelly deprived" of "a rapidly rising talent in the mystery fiction field" when she passed away at the age of 32. A tragic fate she shared with another promising talent, Dorothy Bowers, whose untimely passing left the world with only five (obscure) detective novels (e.g. the excellent Postscript to Poison, 1938).
In both cases, their work became victims of obscurity and they never got to challenge Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh or Josephine Tey for their comfy spots as (secondary) Crime Queens.
During the mid-2000s, Bowers was briefly revived by the now defunct Rue Morgue Press, but Gill had to wait an additional decade to be resurrected. But her time for a comeback has finally arrived: Dean Street Press is reissuing her entire, but humble, body of work, which consists of The Crime Coast (1931), What Dread Hand? (1932) and Crime de Luxe (1933) – all of them introduced by the usual suspect, Curt Evans. Evans wrote a general introduction, concerning the short-lived of the author and her family, as well as a short piece on each novel.
The Crime Coast is the first one of the lot and was originally published in the UK as Strange Holiday, which falls in the category of mystery novels that can be described as "Channel Crossers." A category in which English detectives cross the Channel to have a (holiday) adventure in France. Some early and well-known examples are Freeman Wills Crofts' The Cask (1920) and Agatha Christie's The Murder on the Links (1923), but, lately, some lesser-known "Channel Crossers" were reprinted: Basil Thomson's The Case of the Noami Clynes (1934) and The Milliner's Hat Mystery (1937), E.R. Punshon's Murder Abroad (1939) and John Bude's Death on the Riviera (1952).
You can also place Christopher St. John Sprigg's Death of an Airman (1935) and John Rowland's Calamity in Kent (1950) in this category, but that has more to do with the smuggling sub-plot that tends to hover in the background of these kind of crime novels.
In any case, The Crime Coast has more in common with these latter examples than with those by Crofts and Christie. But let's begin at the beginning.
The Crime Coast opens with a report from a morning newspaper about a double crime perpetrated in a London hotel: a rich Argentinian woman, Luela de Costa, was found in her suite, "wrapped in an eiderdown," almost entirely naked except for one thing – she was clad in "a number of magnificent jewels." Only half an hour later, the Countess of Trelorne discovered that her room had been ransacked and the thief had taken her famous collections of jewels, which included a famous rope of pearls. So two, apparently unconnected, crimes that might be closely linked on account of the close proximity in place and time.
After this short chapter, the story switches to a young Oxonian, Paul Ashby, who had planned a holiday abroad with two of his friends, but one of them secured a job in the colonies and the other one got engaged – dooming him to explore the cities and the French countryside by himself. Fortuitously, a chance encounter at his flat with an ill man, Major Kent, sends him on his trip with a purpose. A stranger's quest to satisfy "a craving for adventure which existed somewhere in the secret places of his soul."
Major Kent is a frail, sick old man who wants to make amends with his son, Adrian, who's a painter smitten by the charms of a much older woman, which lead to one hell of a row between father and son. Adrian had been commissioned to paint a portrait of the woman in question and had fallen in love during his work, but his father recognized in her likeness "the chief character in a particularly unsavory divorce case." One that had ended with a suicide. So naturally he was not pleased that his son intended to marry this woman and their argument ended with Adrian running out of the house, which was the last his father had seen of him, but he wants to see his son again before his groggy heart stops. And he has good reason to believe he's in the south of France.
So the lonely holiday becomes an investigation, as Ashby sets out to search for Adrian, which brings him into contact with a small, but interesting, cast of characters – consisting of both (new) friends and potential foes. There's the villainous brother of the murder victim from the London hotel, Hernandez de Najera, who's known to possess a false alibi for the day of the murder. But why? Ashby also meets a friend of Adrian, one Adelaide Moon, who's a young artist herself. A policeman from England, Detective-Inspector Leech of Scotland Yard, crosses their path as he chases a noted jewel thief, "The Slosher." An unsavory individual known to Ashby as Herbert Dawkins. Finally, we have Gill's series-detective, Benvenuto Brown.
Brown is an interesting character who could've easily grown into one of those recognizable amateur sleuths of the genre, which makes me all the more curious to see how he's used in the other two novels. As noted before, Brown is a painter with a healthy interest in criminology, but his interest is not entirely that of an amateur dilettante. There are snippets strewn throughout the book about his past and he apparently cut his teeth in the Secret Service. Brown was a decorated officer and was offered "a marvelous job in the Foreign Office after the war," but he picked up painting instead and wandered the world while indulging in his "passion for elucidating mysteries" - slowly becoming "the most brilliant detective outside fiction."
I also loved his homely anecdote how his artistic mother tried to forget that "she brought someone into the world who has turned out to be an exponent of cubism." It should also be noted that Brown mentioned he painted at his best when he had a problem to work out. Brown has this common with a classically-styled detective-character from the second half of the previous century, namely Niccolo Benedetti, who also appeared in only three mystery novels before his creator, William L. DeAndrea, passed away prematurely. Patterns!
All of this makes for a good, solid and tight detective story, but the small cast of characters also turned out to be sole flaw of the book, because the murderer has practically nowhere to hide. A seasoned armchair detective will easily point out the guilty party, but, to be fair, there's an additional challenge here that's almost as important as identifying the murderer and consists of piecing together the right sequence of events – i.e. who entered the hotel room and did what before leaving.
The Crime Coast is a solid effort by a debuting novelist, one that's pregnant with promise, which is also a very worthy additional to the pile of "Channel Crossers" that have recently reappeared back in print. I'll definitely return to Gill sooner, rather than later, because Crime de Luxe is (reportedly) one of the better ocean-liner mysteries from the Golden Age. Who doesn't love a good mystery set aboard an ocean-liner?