Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Life of Crime 3: Anthony Gilbert (Lucy Beatrice Malleson) (1899-1973)

Lucy Beatrice Malleson is, by any objective historical standard I believe, one of the most noteworthy English crime novelists who began writing during the Golden Age of detective fiction (c. 1920 to 1939), yet she receives very little notice in genre studies and has been out-of-print for some time.  We don't even have a photograph of her (though I understand Martin Edwards does).

In the nearly half-century from 1925 to 1973, the year of Malleson's death, over seventy detective and crime novels by Malleson were published, most of these under what was her by far most famous pseudonym, Anthony Gilbert (she also published two mysteries under the the abortive pseudonym J. Kilmeny Keith and a few important early psychological crime novels--very hard to find--under the name Anne Meredith, the best known of which is Portrait of a Murderer).


Although Malleson was not, as is sometimes erroneously stated, a founding member of the Detection Club, she was a very early initiate, joining this august institution in 1933, along with Gladys Mitchell and E. R. Punshon (Margery Allingham would join the next year, John Dickson Carr in 1936). 

One of the core members of the Club, Malleson, along with Dorothy L. Sayers, kept it from completely disintegrating during World War Two (for more on the valiant efforts of these two women, see my CADS booklet Was Corinne's Murder Clued? see reviews by Jon L. Breen and Martin Edwards and Patrick Ohl).

Anthony Boucher was a great admirer of the Anthony Gilbert books, routinely praising them in the New York Times Book Review in the 1950s and 1960s, a period when many Golden Age British mystery writers, if they were still writing at all, were losing favor with reviewers (if not necessarily readers).

The sleuth in the Gilbert books from 1936 onward, the earthy, pugnacious, Cockney lawyer Arthur Crook, was considered an original contribution to the great phalanx of fictional detectives.

Malleson's novels often evince a liberal social consciousness and great empathy for the down-and-out and socially marginalized, especially spinsters and the elderly.  Malleson herself was a supporter of the British Liberal Party, not a Tory as so many Golden Age British mystery writers are presumed to be; incidentally, her good friend and fellow Detection Club member, John Street, was also a Liberal, at least until the aftermath of World War Two, when the Labour government soured him on the alternatives to Toryism). 

Appropriately enough, the first series detective in the Gilbert novels, Scott Egerton, was a Liberal M. P.


Malleson was a good writer too.  She produced mainstream novels as well as mysteries.

So why is Malleson so forgotten today? (I should note here that intrepid bloggers like TomCat have written about her work the last few years)  I will look at this question this week, when I review Malleson's detective novel Murder Comes Home (1950).  I will also have more to say about her life, about which I have found some interesting new material.

4 comments:

  1. Though I haven't read many of her novels, I share your views about AG, Curt. Portrait of a Murderer really impressed me. When I talked to people who knew her well, they were clearly extremely fond of her, and presented a much more positive picture than did Christianna Brand in her fascinating but perhaps in some respects unreliable account of life in the Detection Club.

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  2. I think it was Boucher's reviews that led me to Anthony Gilbert. Very satisfying reading.

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  3. What a coincidence! I recently posted a review of her thriller: Lady-killer. I discovered Gilbert last year and so far all the books read of her have been terrific. A couple more are in the pipeline.

    I am intrigued by that 'interesting new material'. Looking forward to your post.

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  4. Looks like this was a sort of Anthony Gilbert week for us!, Neer!

    Christianna Brand is an enjoyable mystery writer and her reminiscences are fascinating, though catty and rather egocentric, I think. She may well have been the belle of the Detection Club, but her comments about other members could sometimes be a bit cruel.

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