It has taken me a while to write this review because I needed time for the book to settle before I could decide how I felt about it. One of its strengths, and weaknesses, was because it isn’t a conventional crime story. We learn who the murderer is fairly early on with the rest of the novel spent watching from the wings to see if they will get caught. Now considering the book was written in 1933 this was a brave move, although this author was quite established under another pen name Anthony Gilbert. However it does mean that for people like me who don’t particularly enjoy the thought of anyone going unpunished, especially for murder, it makes the read a little bit more traumatic than I expect the author intended.
Anyway back to the story. We have a patriarch Adrian Grey, an elderly and not particularly nice man, who has his children to stay for Christmas 1931. There are six children in all, and some of them have bought their partners, and although a grand house like King Poplars should have room enough for them all to rub along nicely, it appears not. One of his children, or their partners kills Adrian Grey. Not such a happy Christmas after all!
Could it be Richard the politician who needs some hard cash to make a little problem disappear? Surely it isn’t younger daughter Amy, the one who stayed behind to keep house and resent any reckless use of her tightly budgeted household? Or Isobel who made an unwise marriage and has returned home with whatever bloom she possessed faded until she is almost the background? Or the son-in-law Eustace who is financier who seems to have dragged the old man into a bit of bother money-wise? Or younger son Brand? He’s the one who is different and ran away to Paris to become an artist and whose blousy wife and mucky children were most definitely not invited to join the Christmas cheer. Surely it can’t be Ruth the happily married daughter who appears to want nothing from her curmudgeonly father? Well we do know it was one of them, and to be honest few of them have enough positive traits to outweigh the negative ones.
As it happens we are put inside the head of the murderer at the point of the killing and know who has done it, what they did to hide any evidence and how they acted post discovery. And this is the bit I liked, this witnessing a fairly unpleasant brood as they try to hide, or minimise, any motive they may have, or in plain speaking are willing to throw each other under the bus if it keeps them in the clear.
A Portrait of a Murderer on balance was a more interesting than an entertaining read. It shone a light on the fading prospects of those who were clinging to their upper class status at a time when everything was changing and fast. Adrian Grey was far from the only wealthy landowner who was having to cut his cloth a wee bit tighter after all.
I’m quite glad I chose to read this out of season, it would probably have put a bit of a dampener on my Christmas dinner but there is no doubting that the British Library Crime Classics has done us all a favour by bringing this book back from obscurity for our enjoyment, whatever the weather.
I’d like to thank the publishers Poisoned Pen Press for allowing me to read a copy of Portrait of a Murderer, I feel honoured to read a book that had been out of circulation for quite so long before they bought it back for a new generation to enjoy. This unbiased review is a thanks to all of you who made this happen.