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Three-a-Penny

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Written by Lucy Malleson — This is a first for me on Crime Fiction Lover – the chance to review an autobiography by a Golden Age author. Never heard of Lucy Malleson? Then how about Anthony Gilbert? Because they’re one and the same person.

‘Anthony Gilbert’ was the author of more than 60 crime novels, and Malleson also wrote 21 other novels under the name of Anne Meredith, plus 25 radio plays for broadcast. One of her novels even inspired the 1945 movie My Name is Julia Ross. So why the subterfuge?

In short, Malleson was a woman competing in a man’s world, and when her work didn’t garner any interest under her own name, she adopted the Anthony Gilbert persona and found success. She managed to conceal her identity for many years, even going so far as to pose for an author photograph disguised as a man. Her contemporaries included Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie, and the title of the book comes from something Sayers said to the author: “You must remember, Anthony Gilbert, that although authors are three-a-penny to us, they are quite exciting to other people.”

Throughout this memoir, Malleson goes to great pains to portray herself as a rather ordinary woman, when in fact she was anything but. The daughter of a stockbroker, she became the family breadwinner when her father lost his job during World War I. Through hard work and determination she managed to earn decent money as a secretary for organisations like the Coal Association, the Ministry of Food and the Red Cross.

But Malleson’s first love was always writing. She’d had work published in Punch magazine when she was still in her teens, and she returned to her writing in earnest while working as a secretary. Rejections came thick and fast, but this is not a woman to be downhearted and she persevered when others would have given up. The breakthrough came in 1927, with The Tragedy at Freyne – the first of the Anthony Gilbert-penned books to find favour with the reading public and with critics too.

Malleson suddenly found herself thrust into the limelight, and she was even invited to be come a member of the famous Detection Club, which also included the likes of GK Chesterton and Dorothy L Sayers in its number.

I have never read any of Malleson’s books (something which I intend to remedy, and soon) but I enjoyed her writing style in Three-a-Penny. No matter what disasters might occur, she is never too serious about herself and her life and there’s a gentle humour that runs through this memoir like the Thames through her beloved London.

This new edition includes an excellent foreword by Sophie Hannah, who obviously holds Malleson in high esteem. She makes an interesting point though – throughout the memoir, Malleson studiously avoids sharing the minutiae of her writing and creative processes. And that’s a real pity, because her books were ground breaking for their time, so how did a woman who led a pretty humdrum life come up with such cleverly conniving crimes?

We will never know, but let’s rejoice in what Malleson does share here. If you are looking for a book about an interesting woman, set in the early part of the 20th century, then Three-a-Penny is a must-read. The same applies if you’d like to follow the life and times of a successful, if now somewhat forgotten, author. I could go on, but whatever your reason for buying a copy, I heartily recommend you do so – this is a very readable and fascinating book.

Take a gander at our guide to 10 of the best books of the Golden Age of crime writing. Sophie Hannah took on the genre herself in The Monogram Murders, featuring none other than Hercule Poirot.

Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Print/Kindle
£4.99

CLF Rating: 4 Stars

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