“Portrait of a Murderer” by Anne Meredith

The observant amongst you will have noticed the arrival at the Ramblings, earlier in the year, of a rather special book in the British Library Crime Classics series. This was a lovely copy of “Portrait of a Murderer” by Anne Meredith, the 50th in the series that BL have released, and they were kind enough to send me a beautifully wrapped copy of the special hardback edition which comes with an essay on Christmas crime fiction by the ever-knowledgeable Martin Edwards. The book is subtitled “A Christmas Crime Story” and it certainly lived up to all the hype, making it the perfect Christmas reading for me!

Meredith was a pseudonym of Lucy Malleson, who wrote a number of novels under the name Anthony Gilbert and was a member of the Detection Club. This novel was very highly regarded by Dorothy L. Sayers, a founder member of that Club, and it’s not hard to see why as it’s a little different from the standard Golden Age mystery fare.

The book begins with the bald statement that Adrian Gray was murdered at Christmas 1931 by a member of his own family – a particularly striking opening paragraph if there ever was one! Following this dramatic start, we are gradually introduced to the members of the extended Gray family, and most of them are a pretty unpleasant bunch. They range from eldest son Richard, obsessed with status and locked into a cold, soulless and childless marriage, through to daughter Olivia married to shady financier Eustace and taking in spinster Amy, crushed Isobel, the nicely normal Ruth and lawyer husband Miles, as well as the prodigal son, artist Hildebrand. They’re a colourful bunch, and Meredith brings them to life wonderfully, gradually introducing them to us and revealing their personalities and their peccadilloes.

This is a difficult book to discuss in detail without spoiling the plot and the wonderful surprises the author springs on the reader; because, actually, we soon know who the murderer is, and so the joy of the book is much like one of those old TV episodes of “Columbo” – you know all along whodunnit, why they did it and how they did it, but you have no idea if and when they’ll be caught. Controversially, Meredith has a detective, Ross Murray, who has a bit of a past of his own but who plays a minimal part in the story; because what we have here, really, is a study of personalities, of family dynamics, and it’s absolutely gripping.

For the most part, the Grays are a nasty bunch. As we find out, old Adrian was a tyrant with a nasty past (all is revealed eventually!) and his children are pretty warped too. Richard is completely obsessed by status and a wish for a title, and everything in his life is subsumed to this. He does have his own passions, however, and they are causing him particular financial issues. Son-in-law Eustace is a very shady character, involved in dodgy financial dealings which threaten to ruin him, his father-in-law, and a lot of other people too. Poor Isobel has suffered a bad marriage and loss of a child, and is in effect a broken woman. However, Ruth has managed to escape from this madness and has a nice, normal family life with her husband and the pair are definitely the most balanced of the Gray clan. (Hilde)Brand is the artist of the family, a real black sheep who has made a disastrous marriage, fathered several children and squanders his talents trying to eke out a living. Frankly, most of the family have a motive for murder, and you do wonder about the sanity of Adrian Gray in having them around him at Christmas time…

Meredith does marvels with her material here, gradually revealing a little more about the family and their background and circumstances, allowing you to watch the processes taking place in the murderer’s mind, following the developments as the police investigate and an arrest is made, and leading you on to a conclusion that perhaps in retrospect was inevitable but is nevertheless very, very satisfying. Her characters are not afraid to discuss the deeper meanings of life, the need to get out and live rather than scrabble around after superficialities, and it’s clear that the author feels strongly that you should go where your talents take you and grasp every chance that comes your way. And SPOILER ALERT the title of the book has a double meaning which becomes very significant when you reach the end of the book – more than that I cannot say.

Have you ever thought, Brand, how many things there are in life, and how terribly few we manage to keep? They all go slipping past, and we’re left in the midst of plenty with nothing in our hands.

I found “Portrait of a Murder” an absolutely gripping read, and definitely worthy of the status of 50th BLCC! It digs deeper than many a GA crime novel, really getting into the psychology and motivation of its characters. I became very fond of old Adrian’s victims and glad that the nastier characters got some kind of comeuppance. As for the murderer – well, their motivation is understandable, there is quite a lot of sympathy for them, and yet the final resolution is the best one possible. I don’t want to be any more specific for fear of spoiling things!

Were there any downsides? Well, the portrait of Eustace Moore was sullied for me by relying on a stereotypical version of a financier of Jewish background, which was very uncomfortable in places. It’s a stereotype that we should have moved on from by now and I wasn’t happy reading this in a book published in the 1930s, but I usually try to put stuff like this in a box and make allowances for the context of the times. I also thought that the character of Brand’s wife, a filthy slattern who slept around whenever she wanted, was a little melodramatic and unreasonable, but maybe that’s my feminist sensibilities coming into play (and there is a reason for her behaviour needing to be so bad, which I won’t go into…)

However, despite these minor caveats, this book was a real winner for me. The British Library Crime Classics imprint has brough real reading joys over the years, and they tend to vary from lighter works that a reader enjoys and then moves on from, to more substantial works that perhaps stretch and challenge the genre a bit more, and definitely stay with you. “Portrait of a Murderer” definitely falls into the latter camp; it’s one of the strongest entries in the series, a real joy and a treat to read, and a book that leaves you musing on what you want to do with your life and whether it’s too late to make some changes! A wonderful treat for the GA crime lover and the ideal Christmas read! 🙂

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!