Edward Lane – once almost awarded the Military Cross, for his valour during the first world war – has fallen so low in the aftermath of the second one, that he now blackmails people and both consumes and peddles drugs. When the novel opens, Ted is thinking of blackmailing four people but since one of them happens to be a powerful lawyer, Ted is worried that the man might have him killed. So what does he do? He invites all the four people at what he calls a ‘reunion party’ and demands 500 pounds from each. Only they turn the table on him and instead of paying meekly threaten him with dire consequences. Talk of ironies!
Ted now goes in mortal fear of his life. A stranger leaning against a pillar, a stranger met on a train, a girl met in a party, a car/ lorry driver, a pick-pocket, even a neighbour … all take sinister hues. And Death is everywhere…all thoughts, all conversations turn to that grim reaper. Sleeping, waking… it stalks him. Meanwhile the four have decided, after a game of draws, that whoever gets the black draught will be the one to finish Ted’s miserable life. Poor Ted doesn’t stand a chance against such determination.
Anthony Gilbert has the knack of making the reader feel sympathetic towards even despicable characters. And so yes, I did feel sorry for the wretched Edward as he looks back:
He was feeling all at sea, thinking confusedly, “This can’t be happening to me, not to Teddy Lane, who started with such high hopes, and good friends once and a good name.” Where had he gone wrong, taken the crooked path? He tried to look over his shoulder, but the past was a blur.
The murderer was not difficult to guess since I read a conversation correctly and the second death was kind of unnecessary. I also felt that Arthur Crook was not really in his element here but his reveal of the final twist was good. That point hadn’t struck me at all! All in all, another winner from Gilbert after the vastly entertaining The Mouse who wouldn’t play Ball.
The book is dedicated to ‘Georgina with the author’s love’. Anybody knows who is this Georgina?
First Line: Teddy Lane was pulling a flower to pieces, a rose that, characteristically, he had neither bought nor grown, but had picked up from the pavement where someone had dropped it.
Publication Details: 1953. London: Collins (The Crime Club), 1953.
Series: Arthur Crook #27
Alternate Titles: Black Death/ Dark Death