Death at a fancy dress ball in country house – the classic murder mystery novel originally published in 1933, now republished in the British Library Crime Classic series. This particular book has an extra element to it: the search for an blackmailer who seems to be encouraging the suicides of previously unconnected and largely blameless people. The narrator of the tale, Tony, is a young lawyer who has been engaged to deal with a tricky international matter, and on his return encounters his old friend Jeremy Freyne. Jeremy has a reputation for disguise, trickery and a flippant attitude to life, fooling people and producing jolly observations on life. Tony and Jeremy are asked to visit Feltham Abbey, to discover if the “Spider”, or the presumed master blackmailer will be there by the British Secret Service.
This novel of women and men in an enclosed group involving a ball, blackmail and state secrets moves along smoothly, full of the chatter of a time when the effects of the First World War are still being felt. Wealthy people, servants and friends all mingle where there are underlying secrets and long term grudges, so when the inevitable murder happens there is a pool of suspects for Tony and Jeremy to investigate. This well paced novel full of period detail is an entertaining story of mystery and fantastic characters. The dialogue which runs throughout the book reveals a certain level of black humour from not only Jeremy, but also the women and men who are at the party or generally live in the area. This book was written by the talented Lucy Malleson under her pen name of Anthony Gilbert, and as Martin Edwards explains in his fascinating introduction, while she did not gain the big commercial success she wanted, she wrote some excellent novels and short stories. Two of these, Horseshoes for Luck and The Cockroach and the Tortoise are also in this book, which are small gems of crime and deceit. I was really pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.
The usual elements of a country house mystery are fully present in this novel. A victim who gains little sympathy with anyone, a number of people with reasonable motives, two people who are determined to discover the guilty party. There are some interesting and well drawn characters who are introduced and developed throughout the novel, and the author gives full weight to the female characters which is not always the case in books of the period.
This is an enjoyable and very readable book with a well focused mystery at its heart. The larger search for the Spider gives a greater depth to this story which lives it above a simple murder mystery. The issues of the interwar years are well represented, as the problems left from one war are still present and in the background. I found the characters well drawn and contribute greatly to the overall effect of the book, with the unusual Merriel Ross being especially intriguing. This is a worthy addition to an already highly successful series of books and I would be very interested to see other books by Anthony Gilbert.