What Dread Hand? by Elizabeth Gill

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It is a great tragedy that owing to her early death, Elizabeth Gill only published three novels, of which this is the middle one, set like the first in France. When sent a copy to review by Dean Street Press, for which many thanks, I knew nothing of this careful but convoluted novel. I was really impressed. In the introduction by Curtis Evans, her novels were described in a contemporary review as “she writes detective stories like a novelist” and I found that it was true. Her allusions to poetry, styles of plays and general descriptions make this book read more like a novel than a whodunit, but the plotting kept me guessing until the end.

Julia Dallas is the central character in this novel; the story is told from her point of view in all its honest awkwardness and snap decisions. It is her fiancé, the multi- talented Charles Kulligrew, who falls victim to a murderous attack during the premiere of a play, and she is honest enough to realise that while she is left distraught, she is not truly broken by his death; that she has lost a dear and true friend rather than the only possible love of her life.  Her confused emotions lead her to some mistakes as well as inspired actions while in pursuit of the true killer, happily she is accompanied by the artist Benvenuto Brown, whose other skill is the detecting of murderers. This is no working through the list of suspects; each character who falls under suspicion is a real person with a backstory and a credible reason for being on the scene of the murder.

The setting of this mystery in a London theatre of the 1930s shows assurance of backstage knowledge and audience appreciation. The pursuit of the guilty takes place across France which would normally reduce my interest, but the places are so well described that even the less well travelled reader can picture the excesses of Monte Carlo and the small villages which are traversed by a combination of lovingly described cars. The crimes of the infamous Tiger which dominate the book provide motives, opportunities and even alibis for other activities. There is the shadow of the First World War, leaving its scars on some of the combatants, but this book is rarely miserable. There are moments of farce, as Julia finds herself locked in, consuming alcohol which affects her actions, and acting on suspicions half formed and uncertain. She is not the hero of the tale; this is 1932 after all, but her progress guides the reader to their own conclusions. I cannot say that I warmed to the character of Brown at all, but he is the amateur detective who works with the police to a satisfactory conclusion, and is there for his cousin throughout.

This is a rich book of descriptive power and consistent characters. The countryside is lush and the people feel real. The clothes worn by the heroine are lovingly described, and her genuine jealousy of Louise heartfelt. I really wanted to find out what happened in this mystery, loved the characters and will be seeking out the other two Elizabeth Gill books very soon!

Lots of things are happening over the next few weeks, so there may be gaps and then 4 blog tour stops! I also have a guest post from THE Martin Edwards, so keep an eye on this space!!

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