Classic Crime

Anne Meredith

Lucy Beatrice Malleson (15 February 1899 – 9 December 1973), used a number of pseudonyms throughout her writing career, her most famous incarnation as Anthony Gilbert with the main of the novels written under this name featuring Arthur Crook. His first outing in ‘Murder by Experts’ was an immediate success, leading her to dispense with her previous ‘hero’, Scott Egerton who appeared in several novels, one of them being ‘The Body on the Beam’. She also wrote as J. Kilmeny Keith and Anne Meredith.

For many years Gilbert's identity was kept secret, and most readers assumed that the author was a man, whose most famous creation was a lawyer-detective Arthur G. Crook whose involvement in crime was more in keeping with Miss Marple in that he directed more from the sidelines than being the centre of attention such as Poirot or Holmes. Gilbert's novels are known for their skilful plotting, lively supporting characters, entertaining dialogue, and clever action without exaggerating violence.

Malleson was born in Upper Norwood, in London. She was educated at St. Paul's Girls' School, Hammersmith, London. Malleson worked as a secretary for the Red Cross, Ministry of Food, and Coal Association. Ignoring her mother's plans to make her a schoolteacher, she fulfilled her own ambition as a writer. In 1925 she published her first book, ‘The Man Who Was London’, under the name J. Kilmeny Keith.

After seeing John Willards' play, ‘The Cat and the Canary’, Malleson decided to try her skills at the thriller genre. She made her debut as mystery writer in 1927 with ‘The Tragedy at Freyne’ introducing Scott Egerton, a rising young British political leader, who then solved crimes in some ten novels. Her first Crook novel appeared in 1936 with ‘Murder by Experts’. It gained enormous success and Malleson dropped Egerton. During the years Crook developed from a rather unattractive character into a strong and popular personality, although he is not generally the protagonist of the story.

Under the name of Anne Meredith, she wrote ‘Portrait of a Murderer’ which is more a treatise on how a murderer’s mind can work to escape detection. This book has been out of print for many decades and has now been released through the British Library to celebrate their 50th publication in the Classic Crime series. Malleson died on December 9, 1973.

Review: Portrait of a Murderer

'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.'

Thus begins a classic crime novel published in 1933 that has been too long neglected - until now. It is a riveting portrait of the psychology of a murderer.

Each December, Adrian Gray invites his extended family to stay at his lonely house, Kings Poplars. None of Gray's six surviving children is fond of him; several have cause to wish him dead. The family gathers on Christmas Eve - and by the following morning, their wish has been granted.

This fascinating and unusual novel tells the story of what happened that dark Christmas night; and what the murderer did next.

Introduced by crime impresario, Martin Edwards this is a crime novel in a different vein from the usual crime novels of the time. This is not a whodunit, not even a whydunit, but more how a murderer thinks and how the murderer plans to thwart the long arm of the law. It is not only a portrait of a murderer, but of a person who has been backed in to a corner by poor life choices and how this can affect the mind. The killer is revealed early on in the book, but it chronicles not only the killer’s life, but how it affects the entire family and how suspicion can widen the cracks in an already fractured family structure.

I am pleased to see it back in print after so many years, as I had heard about this book from Edwards himself a few years back, but copies online were costly to say the least. So at least readers can now read this without having to dig deep in their pockets. Although I really enjoyed this book and the way it was constructed, there were a few passages where I felt Meredith was labouring a few points about motive and how the murderer felt that life had been unfair to them. Meredith does not deliver the favoured ‘living room scenario’ where all is revealed to the audience. Instead, this does mirror life where murder is a ugly and messy business, leaving a lot of devastation by the end of the book.

‘Portrait of a Murderer’ is certainly a cut above the usual crime fare of the time. If I had to be pushed to say what this book is similar to, it would be Francis Iles’ magnificent novel, ‘Malice Aforethought’. I hope the current trend of classic crime continues and that we can expect much more from the British Library Crime Classics series. The new edition of 'Portrait of a Murderer' is available in hardback and paperback.

Reviewed by: C.S.

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