This is a recent arrival from the British Library Crime Classics series, and the promise of a country house party setting made it sound irresistible - it just feels like the right time of year for a country house murder mystery.
Instinct didn’t let me down. Anthony Gilbert is a pen name for Lucy Beatrice Malleson, who also wrote as Anne Meredith (an Anne Meredith book - Portrait of a Murderer was the Christmas mystery in the crime classics series a couple of years ago). I liked ‘Portrait of a Murderer’, but I loved ‘Death in Fancy Dress’, and really enjoyed the bonus pair of Gilbert short stories in this edition too.
It’s some time in the 1930’s, Tony, a lawyer (also in his 30’s) has just bumped into a school friend, Jeremy, somewhere in a bazaar in India. They travel back to London together with Tony painting an enthusiastic picture of Jeremy as a boys own hero (men want to be him, women want to be with him - that kind of thing). Jeremy reveals that he wants to marry David’s cousin, Hilary.
Unfortunately back in London it transpires that Hilary is engaged to someone else, and that she and her stepmother are in some sort of trouble. The two men are dispatched down to Feltham Abbey (the family home) vaguely instructed by someone official to sort out the mess - which is being caused by a blackmailer known as The Spider.
The plot is now sufficiently thick to be a satisfying affair to unravel. It’s easy enough to swallow that somewhere between going to the ‘right’ kind of school, and shared war time experiences you would be sent off to do some quiet work on behalf of the government. The blackmail is for sufficiently high stakes, and also sounds feasible and the various characters basically ring true as well. It’s a strong framework to have some fun with.
I think the probable identity of the Spider is obvious from fairly early on, if it’s not there are more than enough hints when you look back, and a lot of the tension comes from wondering what the repercussions of the eventual denouement will be. There's more tension in the way that Gilbert gives us occasional chances to sympathise to some extent with the culprits initial motives and then reminding us of the human damage that’s being done.
Altogether it’s the full package - great setting, a victim you’re happy to see get done in, a decent plot, convincing characterisation, and some interesting twists which are mainly down to that convincing characterisation. It’s everything I want from a golden age whodunnit.
Looking for a cover image of the book cover I’ve found the blog Clothes in Books which has a lost about some potential outfits for ‘Death in Fancy Dress’ and an archive full of great stuff to look at.