Reviewed by Jeanne
Mystery Scene Magazine has a feature entitled “Intriguing First Lines.” I don’t think they come much better than the first sentence of Portrait of a Murderer:
“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.”
After that shocking line, the reader has a brief introduction to the Gray family, from steely patriarch Adrian through his six children, including various spouses. The narrative then breaks and we learn the circumstances surrounding Adrian’s death, including who committed the murder. This all takes place in the first third of the book; the rest is devoted to portraits of the family as they react to the murder and try to figure out who might have been the perpetrator, though most have a suspect in mind.
To be clear, this isn’t a happy family gathering. Patriarch Adrian is a vengeful, angry man who keeps his family under his thumb. He requires attendance at Christmas mostly because he can. He enjoys making his offspring and spouses trek to Kings Poplars, the remote family manor where both house and atmosphere are chilly, to say the least. All of the children have their own agendas as well. Richard, the eldest son, wants money to buy a title, having over-extended himself financially in order to impress. Daughter Olivia married a financier, whose investments may not be doing as well as expected; son Brand is a starving artist, trapped in a disastrous marriage; Amy is a bitter woman, having spent her adult life looking after her father; Isobel’s husband has left her; and Ruth married a lawyer who is scorned by the family for having no ambition.
The book was first published in 1933 and earned praise for the psychology and the plot structure, but did not earn the author—real name Lucy Beatrice Malleson-- wide-spread fame. Instead, it was her books written under the name Anthony Gilbert that are best known among mystery readers.
I have been thoroughly enjoying the reprints of classic British mysteries. When I picked up Portrait of a Murderer, the manor house on the cover made me think this would be a country house mystery. Instead, it’s more of a study of a family. For some, Adrian’s death is a new beginning; for others, it’s the death of hopes and dreams. Relationships within the family change. Even knowing the murderer didn’t stop me from wanting to know how things would turn out. If you’re looking for a pulse pounding thriller, look elsewhere; but if family dynamics and character studies are more your taste, I think you’ll like this one. I certainly did.