Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Spinster's Secret - Anthony Gilbert

First published 1946; cover shown is the 1987 Pandora Press (UK) paperback edition. Cover art by Sunita Singh and design by Marion Dalley. 199 pages.

There was a time (not so very long ago) when I had read all of Agatha Christie's 80+ mystery novels and believed that that was it - there was nothing else out there that could or would interest me. Then I stumbled across Christie's contemporary Patricia Wentworth, and suddenly I was discovering an ever-growing list of mystery authors: Colin Watson, Pamela Branch, Hilda Lawrence, Margaret Millar, Helen McCloy, Charity Blackstock, Max Murray, Jean Potts...

Now I can add Anthony Gilbert (pseudonym of Lucy Malleson) and her 60+ back catalogue of novels to that list. The Spinster's Secret had that special something that holds a mystery reader's interest from start to finish, with a heart-stopping climax and a cast of lifelike characters - including Arthur Crook, the lawyer/detective around which Malleson based 50 series novels.

Miss Martin is a lonely 74 year old spinster, living in a London bedsit while waiting to die. When she sees a young girl regularly walking past on the street, they begin waving to each other, and eventually she invites the girl (Pamela) and her nurse (Terry) in for tea. When she is invited to the impressive Swan House to have lunch with Pamela, Terry and Pamela's aged and infirm guardian, Mr Scott, Miss Martin finally sees some hope for her future.

But a new life is not to be. Within days Miss Martin has taken ill and she is moved - against her will - to a nursing home. Out walking one day, she is shocked to see Pamela marching past with a group of children from the nearby orphanage. She discovers that Mr Scott died weeks before, and his middle aged sister, Mrs Barnes, has inherited his estate. How could this be? She herself witnessed Mr Scott's will, in which he provided for Pamela.

Miss Martin contacts Terry, who has been ignorant of Pamela's plight. When Terry travels to Mrs Barnes' country estate to make enquiries, she disappears. The frail Miss Martin is beside herself, and her seemingly strange behaviour of spying through the orphanage gates and wandering the streets is starting to attract the wrong kind of attention from the nursing home matrons. With her niece trying to have her certified and sent away for good, Miss Martin contacts Mr Arthur Crook, the lawyer/detective she has read so much about in the papers.

There is no happy ending for Miss Martin; she will be murdered soon. It is due to her troubles and Crook's tenacity that Terry's life is saved and the mystery is solved. The reader knows from the start that Mrs Barnes (and perhaps her son) is the villain, but surprisingly this doesn't detract from the tension at all. The final chapters alone make the entire novel worth reading, while Crook's quirks and appearance ("hands like freckled beef-steak") make for an unlikely but wholly likeable detective.

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