Thursday, January 4, 2018

“Portrait of a Murderer” by Anne Meredith

It’s the early 1930s. The Gray family is gathering for Christmas, and both personal and economic shadows are growing. Adrian Gray, the patriarch, is facing straitened circumstances; his son-in-law has invested badly, including a considerable chunk of Gray’s fortune. The son-in-law, Eustace Moore, is expecting to have furious investors and the law on his heels at any moment, and is desperate to raise cash. The son and heir, Richard, finds himself overextended – keeping his wife well-dressed (and well-jeweled) in a loveless marriage, being blackmailed by his mistress, maintaining a position in Parliament, and trying to spend his way to a title. The youngest son, Brand, is a struggling artist, married to a woman the family refuses to acknowledge, trying to feed five children, and enduring a commercial artist’s job he can’t abide.

All of the Grays need money; the son-in-law and the sons think they can get it from the patriarch. Emotions and desperation are running high. And Adrian Gray is killed in one such act of desperation and anger, struck with a brass paperweight.

The reader knows who the murderer is. The reader watches the murderer develop a plot to implicate someone else.

Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith, originally published in 1933 and long out of print, is not the easiest of mystery novels to read. It’s also not a typical mystery novel. It’s one of those works in the mystery genre that aspires to something higher, and it largely succeeds.

The reader is taken into the interior landscape of the murderer. We understand why it happened, we feel little sympathy for the murder victim or really for any of the characters. Only one – the lawyer son-in-law of another of Adrian Gray’s daughters, is the most sympathetic, and he occupies only a very small role until near the end. And as despicable as the character is, there’s almost a desire to see the murderer get away with it. That took some considerable skill on the part of the author.

Lucy Beatrice Malleson, aka Anne Meredith
Anne Meredith was the pen name of Lucy Beatrice Malleson (1899-1973), who was best known for detective novels written under the name of Anthony Gilbert. Portrait of a Murderer is one of her few books available in print today, but in her lifetime was a highly respected mystery writer, praised by such writers as Dorothy Sayers. She wrote 69 crime novels, some 51 of which starred her most famous detective Arthur Crook.

Deservedly part of the British Library’s Crime Classic series, Portrait of a Murderer is a challenging read – but worth the challenge of hanging in there.

Top photo: an English manor house in the snow.

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