Mystery crime fiction written in the Golden Age of Murder
"Golden age fans will be enthralled." Publishers Weekly STARRED review
'Adrian Gray was born in May 1862 and met his death through violence, at the hands of one of his own children, at Christmas, 1931.'
Thus begins a classic crime novel published in 1933 that has been too long neglecteduntil now. It is a riveting portrait of the psychology of a murderer.
Each December, Adrian Gray invites his extended family to stay at his lonely house, Kings Poplars. None of Gray's six surviving children is fond of him; several have cause to wish him dead. The family gathers on Christmas Eveand by the following morning, their wish has been granted.
This fascinating and unusual novel tells the story of what happened that dark Christmas night; and what the murderer did next.
About the Author
ANNE MEREDITH was the pseudonym of Lucy Beatrice Malleson (18991973), who is best known as the author of the Arthur Crook series of detective novels published under the name of Anthony Gilbert. She was a highly esteemed writer of crime fiction and a member of the elite Detection Club, but the 'Anne Meredith' books have long been unavailable.
Read an Excerpt
Adrian Gray was born in May 1862 and met his death through violence, at the hands of one of his own children, at Christmas, 1931. The crime was instantaneous and unpremeditated, and the murderer was left staring from the weapon on the table to the dead man in the shadow of the tapestry curtains, not apprehensive, not yet afraid, but incredulous and dumb.
2. The Grays
At the time of his death Gray was in his seventieth year, and had six children living. There had been a seventh, who died as a child, and so long ago that the younger ones scarcely remembered his existence. Only when the bitterness and futility of his parenthood pressed upon the ageing man with a greater sense of weariness than usual did Gray wonder whether the young Philip might not have grown up to be a solace and companion to him. But these moods occurred seldom, and for the most part he, like his children, forgot the little son who had died thirty years ago.
It was his habit at Christmas-time to invite all his relatives to spend the season at his lonely house at King's Poplars. The wife of one and the husbands of two of them made their numbers up to nine, while Mrs. Alastair Gray, the dead man's mother, an old lady of ninety, brought the party up to eleven. There was, in addition, a number of servants, both male and female.
As was shown at the inquest, Gray was on good terms with none of his children, while more than one had good reason to wish him out of their path. His eldest son, Richard, was at this time a man of two-and-forty, ambitious, dogged, and fierce to achieve his objective, which was place and reputation. He was childless, a fact that greatly distressed and humiliated him, was well known in political life, and had a few years earlier obtained a knighthood. He had been for many years married to Laura Arkwright, a notable woman in society.
Gray's eldest daughter, Amy, his only unmarried child, kept his house for him, and was a shrewd and shrewish woman of forty, small, sharp-featured, with reddish hair and thin lips and hands.
His second daughter, Olivia, was married to Eustace Moore, the unscrupulous but intelligent financier into whose hands Gray had allowed the larger portion of his capital to pass.
The dead Philip had come next, and after him Isobel, who had made a brilliant but, as it turned out, disastrous marriage several years earlier. Gray had been delighted when Harry Devereux asked for his daughter. The suitor was rich, handsome, and much sought after. He had a reputation for wit and charm that was not wholly misplaced, but he should have married a woman of his own world, not the young, independent, fiercely idealistic Isobel. Within two years his wife acknowledged her folly, but when she endeavoured to escape from its consequences she found herself powerless. Her husband assured her that she would win nothing but obloquy if she attempted to divorce him; and here she realised that he was right. A man of his popularity had women on every hand prepared to defend him. She thought it improbable that he had not guarded himself at every turn and thus she endured for another year. Then she was delivered of a girl-child, who survived her birth seven months. Isobel attributed the baby's death to a certain brutal action on the part of the father, and spent anguished weeks wondering how she could have averted the tragedy. Finally she asked her father to receive her home, detailing, as best she could, the manner of her life, her intolerable life, in London. Both Gray and Amy wrote, imploring her frantically to consider the position she would occupy if she returned, the manner in which tongues would wag, her own humiliation. They commiserated her on the death of the child, letting it be seen that they thought her request due to mental upset, following her loss, and spoke hopefully of "next time." Isobel left both letters unanswered, and the household at King's Poplars heard nothing more of her, until Devereux himself came down to suggest that Isobel should return home, as she was ill, stubborn, persistently refused him his rights, and he feared some desperate act on her part, such as suicide.
"And you think it would be pleasanter for us to have the scandal of a suicide in the house, rather than yourself?" was Gray's acid comment.
Amy said, "It's a struggle to live as it is, without another mouth to feed."
Devereux made it plain that he would allow his wife a handsome allowance so long as she remained at the Manor House. The attitude of father and sister altered at once. A week later Isobel reappeared. The older servants — there was at that time a housekeeper who had known the family for a great many years, who died twelve months later, besides the long-established Moulton — were openly shocked at her appearance. Isobel had always been the independent, the courageous one. She had found herself work in the neighbouring market town, had loved solitude, had read, had gloried in trips to London, had haunted book-shops and art galleries. Isobel Devereux came back white and listless, meekly submissive to her father, and handing over to Amy, without demur, practically all the money with which her husband supplied her. She scarcely counted as a personality, but could be relied upon to perform those casual and thankless household duties that are invariably shirked by others.
Hildebrand, named for the famous Cardinal, came next, a difficult, striking, handsome figure, sullen and secretive, capable of sudden expansion when he blossomed as unexpectedly and beautifully as a miracle or a flower, but among his own people dark, silent, and morose. From childhood he had caused his father anxiety; he was original, headstrong, and hot-tempered, and had early cut himself off from all sympathetic communication with his family, who were antipathetic to his ideals and intentions, and responded with the utmost ungraciousness (reasonable enough in the circumstances) to his perennial demands for financial assistance. He was seldom mentioned to their acquaintances by any of them, and eked out a wretched, cramped existence with the woman he had chosen to marry and their trail of drab, unattractive children, in a little house near the Fulham cemetery.
The last child, Ruth, had been married for eight years to Miles Amery, a promising young lawyer whose career had, unfortunately, stopped short at the promise. Richard and Eustace were both enraged and disgusted by this wilful relative, who seemed devoid of ambition, and did not even want to bring kudos to the family into which he had married. He pursued his obscure way with apparent satisfaction, never even aiming at anything higher. He seemed to think that a moderate income and a middle-class house in an unexceptionable district were the culmination of any man's desire. If you asked him how he was, he said very fit and having lots of fun.
"Fun!" said Eustace in a sepulchral tone, as Chadband might have said, "Drink!" and believing it every whit as sinful.
"Fun!" intoned Richard, vexed and outraged at what seemed to him a wanton flinging away of opportunity. "What's fun?"
They might well ask. Ruth could have told them. It was the house in St. John's Wood, and the two little girls, Moira and Pat, and all the satisfactions of their happy, full, rich life with one another.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, 1931, that was to close so tragically, Richard Gray and his wife, Laura, travelled to King's Poplars in a first-class carriage. After a long silence, Richard lifted his haughty, melancholy face from the pages of The Times, and remarked in tones as cold and polished as a brass door-handle, "I beg of you, Laura, to remember my father's views on the question of tariffs. It is most important that he should not be upset before I have an opportunity of discussing the position with him. You know how heated these political dissensions leave him."
Richard invariably spoke as though he carried a reporter in his waistcoat pocket.
Laura, a tall, handsome woman, very beautifully gowned, said lightly, "You can rely on my discretion. I, too, know how important it is that he shouldn't be upset. After all, I want to have a title quite as much as you want to buy it for me."
Richard frowned and returned to his paper. He considered his wife's remark in bad taste. Laura had, in fact, been one of his least profitable investments. As a young man, even before he had completed his term at the University, Richard had decided to make a success of his life. He had worked hard, cultivated a wide acquaintance, travelled, read extensively, taught himself to appreciate golf, spent wet afternoons watching a ball being kicked round and round a slimy field, and even, in certain company, lost money on horses. The result was that, within ten years, he had achieved a reputation. He had started on his political career, and its early honours were falling thick upon him. Flushed with pride and ambition, he extended his circle of acquaintances, and at thirty he met Laura Arkwright. She was three years his junior, handsome, an heiress, possessed an influential circle of relations, was cultured, urbane, and a well-known amateur pianist. She was, in short, in every way suited to be the wife of a rising M.P.
Richard, well pleased with his perspicacity, awaited the enriching of his life through this new tentacle he had put out. In almost every direction he met with bitter disappointment. Owing to ill-advised speculation, his wife's fortune was largely dissipated; she gave up her piano-playing comparatively soon after her marriage, on the extraordinary ground that she objected to commercial art. Richard brooded over that for some time — he was already very like his father — and at last was driven by injured curiosity to ask her what she meant. Laura said lightly it meant that she didn't want to play to his friends any more, and that she'd always been sorry for nice dogs exhibited at shows, another cryptic and absurd remark that Richard failed to understand. But he had had enough of asking for explanations, and took other means of showing his displeasure.
His greatest disappointment, however, was their childlessness. He had meant to have sons — a daughter or two later, perhaps, since, though daughters were negligible in themselves, they might make advantageous connections for a father by marriage. But they had never even experienced the customary scares and hopes of a young couple. Richard, of course, blamed his wife; sometimes, in very intimate male society, if he felt sufficiently sore, he would acknowledge that she was a cold woman. He was perpetually surprised at the number of quite important people who appeared to think it worth their while keeping up with her, even after she lost her fortune, but supposed they had the sense to realise that she was married to a man who might be precious useful to them one of these days.
Laura said scornfully that of course they hadn't got children; a man like Richard couldn't expect them. He'd be so miserly he'd grudge them their very life.
At the end of three years she detested him. Since his realisation that they would, in all probability, never have children, he had been at first ostentatiously offended. Later, however, his grievance took a subtler form. He persisted in loading his wife up with jewels, handsome clothes, and furs — "Putting his trade mark on me, so that I can't be mislaid wherever I go," said Laura bitterly. This action on his part caused other wives to say in envious tones, "It must be wonderful to have a husband like Richard Gray. That wife of his hasn't done a thing for him, and he's the most generous soul alive. Some women have luck." Which, as Laura knew, was Richard's crafty intention, and a new way of humiliating her. Added to this was the fact that her relations had failed to fulfil her husband's expectations of them, having indeed become an embarrassment rather than an aid. They had seceded some years earlier to an advanced Radicalism that horrified and disgusted Richard, whose mode of argument was that a certain class had held power and lands for centuries, and therefore had proved their ability to govern.
Laura, while maintaining a gay and spirited attitude, was actually extremely unhappy. This was partly due to the humiliation of realising her inability to compare with her own kitchenmaid, who, with admirable composure and no legal sanction, had recently been delivered of twins. But still more was it the result of the dreary ineffectual life she supported with her husband. By nature apt to be reckless and impulsive, she had schooled herself to a cool and polished manner that flaunted its cynicism in the face of an indifferent world. At heart she detested the innumerable political intrigues in which her husband engaged, whose rewards seemed contemptible. In addition, she was deeply in love with a man who, like Richard, was chiefly concerned with the fruits of office, and who heaped humiliations upon her by beseeching her in the most craven manner to be perpetually on guard against revealing a hint of the true relationship between them. Laura had sometimes dallied with the notion of asking Richard for a divorce, but in her heart she knew both men too well to hope that either would lay aside a spark of his ambition to accommodate her.
She was aware of, and utterly sickened by, Richard's present strait. He had for some time been devoured by a passion to obtain a peerage; the amount of feeling he could squander on the attainment of this paltry ambition seemed to her more contemptible than the money entailed. He had not contemplated this step in his original scheme, but since overhearing a club member, a little less snobbish than himself, observe to a neighbour, "What earthly good is a title to a fellow like Gray? He's got no one to follow him," his intention became fixed. He would at all events command respect and notice, if not from posterity, at least from contemporaries. This determination had now become an obsession with him. Already it had lured him to unjustifiable lengths. It was not only the peerage that he coveted, but a certain appointment to which, he believed, a peerage was a necessary step. There was a second competitor in the field, a man in many ways more favoured than himself, and to this silent, heart-breaking, neck-to-neck race he applied himself recklessly. The course involved an expenditure far too heavy for his purse, and he had already entered into obligations he could not meet. The man he must satisfy was a rigid Nonconformist, who would certainly disapprove of his candidate's action in running headlong into debt. Once let the tale of his financial embarrassments come to F — 's ears and he might abandon all hope both of title and political advancement.
The money, he considered, had been wisely spent; a certain proportion had been speculated in good works, the endowing of a bed in a somewhat obscure hospital in F — 's constituency, a handsome subscription to a fund being inaugurated for the unemployed, and various donations to societies for dealing with the destitute and unfortunate. So far, so good, even from F — 's point of view. But, far outbulking these moneys, were enormous sums spent on entertainment, costly wines, fruits out of season, astounding frocks for Laura, flashing jewels, a car whose photograph appeared in various Society journals, prominent positions at fashionable gatherings, all designed to create the impression that where Richard Gray was absent something was lacking. And as if it were not troublesome enough to be bombarded by short-sighted creditors, who didn't appear to realise the position, or the good fortune that would reward their patience, there was the affair of Greta Hazell.
Miss Hazell was a striking young woman of a southern type of beauty, warm-blooded, entrancing, and — oh, very expensive. Quite how expensive Richard was only just beginning to understand. He had supposed himself lavish, if not recklessly extravagant, in his treatment of his wife, but Greta showed him how, without any of that ostentation, a mistress could prove quite as costly. There, though he would not for worlds have admitted it, even to himself, lay the root of this financial embarrassment that irked him day and night. The rest he might have supported, but this made the burden intolerable. The lady in question, being a woman of business flair and experience, was blackmailing him for an absurd sum. When he protested, she said, "It wouldn't suit your book at all, my dear Richard, to have our connection made public. Whereas it wouldn't injure me at all. Indeed, considering the amount of limelight you've enjoyed of late, it might even be good for me. The woman who seduced Richard Gray." And she laughed.
Excerpted from "Portrait of a Murderer"
Copyright © 2018 Poisoned Pen Press.
Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part I: Christmas Eve, 5,
Part II: The Journal of Hildebrand Gray, 49,
Part III: Christmas Day, 85,
Part IV: Aftermath of a Crime, 125,
Part V: The Verdict of You All, 167,
Part VI: Witness for the Defence, 191,
Part VII: The Answer, 219,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It’s Christmas 1931. *Pause - That’s it for Christmas, so if the lovely, traditional cover suggests that you might find here some warm, Christmas-infused tale or lesson in the Christmas spirit, you’ve been had. On the other hand, if like me you run with gusto in the opposite direction from heart-warming tales of the resilience of the human spirit and happy families where all value each other’s individuality, stick around, this novel is just right for you. Thick snow lies all around an estate with a name, Kings Poplar. Imagine Downtown Abbey 15 years after the series ended. The aristocracy isn’t what it used to be, but some of the younger generation of those aristocratic families are caught by the sudden change. They believe it’s their right to be funded without gainful employ. The whiff of “scandal” is the greatest evil, to be avoided at all costs. The social hierarchy remains but is much less impactful than it once was. The “estate” is in disrepair. The lives of the nearby villagers have little to no connection or loyalty to the family. As in a few dozen other 1930s-era British mysteries, we have: • the requisite cold, judgmental and cantankerous father, Adrian Gray. He gets along with none of his adult children and respects neither their values nor their spouses. • His sons, Richard and Brand, and daughters, Amy, Olivia, Ruth and Isobel. • A son-in-law, Eustace, with whom Adrian has invested the lion’s share of the family’s liquid assets. Another is an attorney, married to Ruth. A daughter-in-law, Sophie, married to Brand, whom all – including Brand – consider common and taking advantage of Brand whilst producing babies that may not be his. Another daughter-in-law, Laura, married to Richard, rounds out the set and becomes one of my favorite characters. Here’s where the similarity to other mysteries ends. Portrait of a Murderer is not a whodunit. We are told in its initial sentence that one of the kids will kill Adrian over the holiday. Then he or she does so, and the reader is in the room when it occurs. Boom. Portrait of a Murderer is, on the one hand, a Columbo-like story focused on determining how the murderer slipped up and will become captured and, on the other hand, a far more interesting, well-plotted, intelligent tale anchored in the device of a murder mystery of the once-wealthy class, as well as the working class, between the wars. Their world has forever altered, but some of the family are moving forward, and some are clinging to a past they are unable to recapture. Meredith’s writing is elegant and efficient. She presents a cast of characters whose values and concerns cause the reader to, initially, dislike them all. Then she turns almost every one of those presuppositions on their head, challenging the reader to look more closely. The ending is unexpected, brilliant, and shows Meredith’s understanding of her characters and their motives. I couldn’t have asked for more in a mystery read. Thanks to NetGalley and Poisoned Pen Press for providing a copy.
Originally published in 1933, this classic Christmas tale is very much worthy of a modern day audience. Thank you British Library, Crime Classic Publishing for bring this back around to entertain us again. Every Christmas the extended family of Adrian Grey meet at his isolated country house for the holiday. The Christmas of 1932 with the world in a depression and the English and American Stock markets tanked, the children of Adrian Grey all come with hands out for monetary assistance for various reasons. But Adrian too is strapped as his liquid assets have gone to his stockbroker son in law years ago and are all part of the collapsed market in England. Christmas morning Adrian is in his library, struck dead in the night with his own paperweight by his artist son. But how will the police handle the murder? And who will ultimately pay the price? Anne Meredith is a pen name for the author Lucy Beatrice Malleson. Although receiving good reviews and gaining her an American publisher, Portrait of a Murderer was not a commercial success. Ms. Malleson, however will be long remembered for her novels written under her more masculine pen names, J. Kelmeny Keith and Anthony Gilbert. I received a free electronic copy of this historical novel from Netgalley, the estate of Anne Meredith, and British Library Crime Classic Publishing in exchange for an honest review. Thank you all for sharing your hard work with me.