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Monday 5 March 2018

Elizabeth Gill

The  Golden Age
Elizabeth Gill (1901-1934)
by Carol Westron

 Elizabeth Gill was born Elizabeth Joyce Copping, the daughter of Harold Copping and his second wife, Edith Mothersill. Gill’s half-siblings by her father’s first marriage were significantly older than her; her half-sister died before Gill’s birth and one of her half-brothers died in 1910, while the other emigrated to Canada. Her younger brother was born when Gill was thirteen years old. This meant that, for much of her childhood, Gill was an only child, living in the village of Shoreham in Kent, with her parents and a young Irish governess. Gill was part of a family that was devoted to a diverse range of artistic and literary pursuits. Gill’s father, Harold Copping, was an illustrator, best known for his illustrations of Biblical scenes. His illustrations were collected into what became known as The Copping Bible (1910) and sold widely in Britain. Copping’s most famous illustration was The Hope of the World (1915), which portrays Jesus surrounded by a multi-racial group of children. This illustration became immensely popular in Sunday Schools. However, Harold Copping also did illustrations for many classic works of literature, both British and American.

Gill’s great-grandfather, John Skinner Prout, was a painter and lithographer and her grandfather, Edward Copping, was editor of the London Daily News and the author of an immense, three-volume, tragic Victorian novel, The Home at Rosefield (1861.) Gill’s uncle, Arthur E. Copping was a journalist, travel writer and comic novelist.

Surrounded by such a wide-ranging creative background, it is not surprising that Gill’s creative outlets included watercolour painting and dress design as well as writing.

Gill first married in 1921, when she was only nineteen. Her first husband was Kenneth de Burgh Codrington (1899-1986), a young colonial Englishman who was studying Indian archaeology at Oxford. Less than six years later the couple divorced. Codrington was a brilliant scholar, and, after the divorce, he went on to have a long and successful career, holding the post of Keeper of the Indian Museum at the Victoria and Albert Museum and going on to become the first professor of Indian archaeology at London’s School of Oriental and African studies.

Gill’s second marriage was in 1927, soon after her divorce. She married Colin Unwin Gill (1892-1940) the well-known English painter and muralist, who drew much of the subject matter for his art from his experiences in the trenches during the First World War. The couple lived in a flat at the Tower House, Tite Street, Chelsea, a street that is famous for the number of great artists, writers and composers that have lived there over the years. However, judging by the setting for her first two detective novels, the couple must have spent some time in southern France amongst the artistic communities. It is uncertain how happy this second marriage was or how it would have turned out, but it is known that, in the early 1930s, Colin Gill had started an affair with a neighbour in Tower House.

In 1929 Elizabeth Gill embarked on a short but successful writing career with the publication of her first novel, which was initially known in the UK as Strange Holiday, although it has recently been reprinted under its US
title, The
Crime Coast. This was well-received in Britain and America and was followed by What Dread Hand? (1931) and Crime De Luxe (1933.) All three books featured the amateur detective and cosmopolitan artist Benvenuto Brown, a multi-talented charismatic protagonist with the potential to have become one of the great fictional detectives of the Golden Age.

In 1934 Elizabeth Gill died, unexpectedly, after an operation. She was only thirty-three years old. The biographical details of Gill’s life are limited but her three books reveal certain things about her life and her attitudes.

In her first Benvenuto Brown novel, The Crime Coast, the action starts with an English newspaper article describing the discovery of a woman’s dead body in a fashionable London hotel. Signora da Costa, a rich Argentinian, was discovered lying on her bed, wrapped in an eiderdown and wearing nothing but an array of magnificent jewels. At around the same time, from a room in the same corridor of the hotel, a British Countess returned to her room to discover her valuable jewels had been stolen. It appears likely that the two crimes are linked. Almost as a throw-away, a short paragraph mentions that Signora da Costa has recently come from Paris and that she was ‘a woman of great beauty and had been painted by many artists of the modern school.’ A clue so subtle that it is very easy to miss.

In this first book, Gill uses the ploy of a narrating character who starts with only a minimal and coincidental connection to the crime or the other characters, so that the situation can be explained through his eyes. Paul Ashby is on the eve of going on holiday to France, although he feels rather dispirited that his travelling companions have pulled out at the last minute. When a frail old gentleman collapses outside Paul’s apartment, Paul naturally comes to his aid and, when the gentleman recovers, Paul invites him to dine. The gentleman knows France and they discuss the places that Paul might visit: ‘And for the next half hour Major Kent described to Paul the life of the Southern fishing ports, with their floating population of painters, writers and étrangers from all parts of the world.’ By the end of their meeting, Major Kent has told Paul about his only son, Adrian, an artist, who got embroiled with an older, rapacious woman, fought free and now is being blackmailed by her to return to her. To escape her, Adrian plans to disappear for several months, unaware that his father has a serious heart condition that could kill him at any time. Paul agrees to seek out Adrian and deliver a letter from his father, a mission that adds excitement to his holiday and, as the Major is paying his expenses, means that he can afford a more extravagant holiday than his own means would allow. 

Gill’s description of the South of France and the eccentric crowd of artists that flock there is masterly and clearly the work of a person who was intimately acquainted with it and loved it. By portraying it through the somewhat naïve eyes of Paul Ashby she is able to reveal the full humour and vivid liveliness of the scene. ‘The whole town seemed to be out for a promenade, and Paul thought it all looked very like the scene in a ballet or opera.’... ‘Everyone seemed to be burnt the colour of mahogany, and wearing what to Paul’s inexperienced eye was fancy dress. At the next table a stout figure in a little pair of shorts and a pale blue-and-white sleeveless tricot, surmounted rather surprisingly by a square-cut beard, a ferocious expression, and a monocle, was engaged in earnest conversation with a slim-hipped blond whose mouth was painted to match her scarlet beret.’ When Paul first sees Benvenuto Brown it seems that he fits well into this flamboyant company: ‘His clothes were rather eccentric, consisting of a very wide pair of almost white corduroy trousers, liberally bespattered with paint, a vividly checked shirt open at the neck, and a black beret.’ Paul’s immediate impression is of an Englishman between thirty and forty, ‘evidently a popular figure, and an interesting looking chap.’ 

It has been said that, in some ways, Gill’s Benvenuto Brown resembles Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey in that he is a cultured man of the world who possesses multiple skills. As well as being a successful painter, Brown’s talents range from being a demon driver to recognising the subtle ingredients that make up the sauce he is eating.
According to Adelaide Moon, a friend of Brown, he’d had a distinguished wartime career,
‘“He was in the secret service, you know; he did simply brilliantly and got covered in decorations.... he was offered a marvellous job in the Foreign Office after the war, but he refused, and took up painting and has wandered all over the world since then. He’s always had a passion for elucidating mysteries.... if he hadn’t been such an independent creature he’d have been a terrific success – in the F.O. or the Diplomatic Service or the Police, or anything he’d chosen to take up.... As things are, he’s making himself a reputation as a painter, and he sells awfully well in Paris and the States.”’ 

Despite his impressive range of abilities, his service in the War and the fact that he is well-born, in fundamental ways Brown is very different to Wimsey. Brown enjoys his life and shows none of the scars of war that cause Wimsey such agony: nor does he indulge in excessive soul-searching about his contribution to the conclusion of a murder case. Indeed, he is happy to use his own judgement and allow a murderer for whom he feels sympathy to go free. He does not require a man servant, and, although in later books he dresses in appropriate suits and evening clothes to move in formal society, he is comfortable in his disgraceful paint-stained clothes, as indeed he appears to be comfortable in his own skin. Perhaps the greatest difference is that Wimsey is a musician and academic, but Brown is a creative artist, who often retreats to his easel when he wishes to give his subconscious time to think things through.

Brown is a lively presence who always adds fun to a gathering. ‘He looked around the table before answering, his good-humoured, lined face with its long upper lip creased into a smile. Somehow with his coming the party had become a party, and even Agatha, rather primly holding her glass, seemed to wear her scarves at a jauntier angle.’ (What Dread Hand? 1931).

Adelaide Moon is a successful artist, a beautiful, vibrant creature, who glories in her time at the fisherman’s village that makes her ‘“feel absolutely free – and this place is so personal and absorbing that I forget all about any other life, and then I can begin to paint.”’ When Gill describes the beautiful views, the vibrant singing colours, the cheerful bonhomie of the artistic community and the delightful, sun-drenched simplicity of the artists’ homes, it seems probable she is describing her ideal existence and that she wishes she could be Adelaide Moon, not as the love interest of Paul Ashby, junior solicitor, but as a free, independent and creative woman, living in a community that puts art and pleasure above more sophisticated and genteel activities.

When Paul asks for Brown’s assistance in locating Adrian Kent he is horrified to discover that Adrian was the lover of Senora da Costa and that he had tried to break free of her stranglehold. He is the police’s chief suspect in her murder and has gone into hiding. Benvenuto Brown and Adelaide Moon are both friends of Adrian and Brown assures Paul that he is innocent and suggests various other plausible suspects, including a man who has been making a nuisance of himself to Adelaide. Paul is eager to help in Brown’s investigation into the murder.

“I can’t promise I’ve got the makings of a great detective, but if I can help you catch that swine out, well, I should love to be Watson to your Holmes.”
Brown brushes aside Paul’s modesty with the assurance, ‘“Don’t talk rot – two heads are better than one in a business of this sort, and I’m damn grateful to you for coming in on it.”
However, as the case progresses, Paul realises that, like Holmes, Brown is not going to tell his helpers all that he knows or all the tricks he has up his sleeve.

Like all good amateur sleuths, Brown does have a tame police detective who gives him information and never resents his intrusion into criminal investigations. Indeed, Detective Inspector Leech positively welcomes Brown to take part in his investigations – not to say take them over – and Brown always makes sure that Leech comes out at the end with a satisfactory solution and arrest.

The title of Gill’s second book, What Dread Hand? is taken from Blake’s poem The Tyger and there is a darker and more menacing feeling throughout the book than in the first Benvenuto Brown mystery. The action starts in London, on the First Night of an exciting and prestigious new play, describing a world that is both glittering and artificial. In Chapter Seven the story moves to the South of France, returning to the landscape so vividly and joyously described in Gill’s first novel, although, in What Dread Hand? the French countryside has a darker more sinister tinge. This may be because of the activities of a bandit known as The Tiger, who, shortly after the war was a Robin Hood figure, stealing to aid the poor, but now is committing vicious and violent crimes for his own profit. It is interesting to note that Leslie Charteris had used the same nom de guerre for his villain in the first Saint book, The Saint Meets the Tiger, published in 1929.

The detective is again Benvenuto Brown but the viewpoint character in What Dread Hand? is Julia Dallas, a young lady who is engaged to Lord Charles Kulligrew, who was ‘one of those people who seem unfairly endowed with a multitude of talents, any of which taken alone and fostered would have brought fame and fortune to an ordinary man. Oxford remembered him both for athletic prowess and a Prize Poem, while to the public he was famous for his book on the Aztec expedition. During the war he had served with great distinction on that most adventurous force, the Intelligence Service, but met with acute dismay any reference to his achievements in this as in any other walk of life.’

Instead of enjoying her engagement to this paragon, Julia feels that ‘to their mutual but unspoken dismay, the demands of a closer relationship seemed to have done nothing but obscure a light-hearted friendship.’ As Julia explains to her old friend Benvenuto Brown, ‘“You know, Charles is difficult; he’s so much more profound, somehow, than I am. My inferiority complex makes me want to scream when I’m with him. Ben, do you think we’re going to make a success of it? Just now and again,” she lowered her voice, “I almost hate him.” And when Julia’s engagement is at an end, she admits to herself ‘she had liked and admired, and even in a way loved Charles, she told herself, and that she would miss him terribly. But she could not pretend that her life was broken up, that she had lost everything she valued; could not pretend that every now and again a demon inside her did not lift its head and say, “You’re free – you’re free.”’
The thing that is fascinating about Gill’s description of Julia’s emotional state is that it is extremely probable that this mirrors Gill’s own thoughts and feelings during and after her marriage to Kenneth de Burgh Codrington, a man of numerous talents, whom everybody admired, and yet perhaps engendered in Gill that ‘cold feeling of loneliness and failure’ she describes in Julia. It is interesting that in Adelaide Moon in Crime Coast and Julia Dallas in What Dread Hand? Gill produces two heroines who are independent and joyous, both of whom remark that one of the things they like about Brown is that he treats women as rational human beings. It seems possible, even probable, that Adelaide and Julia were Gill’s ideal young woman, and it is interesting that she gently ushered her self-sufficient heroines towards marriage, as she herself embarked on a second marriage very soon after the termination of the first.

The third Gill novel, Crime de Luxe, is set on the transatlantic ocean liner, Atlanta. Benvenuto Brown is travelling to America for the first time to view an exhibition of his paintings.

Gill travelled from the UK to the US by liner several times and this experience is clear in her descriptions of the embarkation and voyage. Gill’s previous stories had been well received but her third and last received superb reviews. ‘Brown is distinctly worth meeting … The story, besides being sufficiently baffling, is very well written and introduces a group of unusually well-drawn characters.’ New York Times Book Review.

Crime de Luxe is different from the other Benvenuto Brown books in that the first two were written in the Third-Person viewpoint of a narrating character who described Brown’s detective activities, which made it easier to conceal anything that Browndidn’t wish to share but made it harder to really get to know Brown. In Crime de Luxe the narration is still in the Third-Person but the narrating character is Benvenuto Brown and this gives the reader a chance to really get to know him. He is a thoroughly likeable very human person, who is not always reasonable and grumbles to himself about the loss of his five days of relaxation when he becomes involved in the murder investigation. ‘Why, indeed, he thought peevishly, couldn’t people murder each other on dry land instead of intruding upon this pleasant and highly artificial board-ship life their personal feuds? It seemed to him at the moment like a breach of manners.’

Brown reveals himself as an intelligent, humorous, kind and courteous man, as is shown in his first encounter with the absent-minded Mrs Pindlebury.
‘Mrs Pindlebury dropped her knitting into her lap. “Dear, dear, what have I said?” she murmured. “I quite thought you were a friend of ours – an old friend. So confusing. So many strangers on the train – and then, seeing you, you looked so much as though you ought to be. A friend I mean.”
“How perfectly charming of you,” said Benvenuto, retrieving a ball of pink wool which had rolled beneath the seat and handing it to her. “It’s so precisely what one would wish to look like, isn’t it? Somebody’s friend.”
This kindness and good-manners is the reason that Brown befriends a strange, sad middle-aged lady, dressed in out-of-date clothes and seemingly out of touch with the world and, this in its turn is one of the reasons he is asked by the ship’s Captain to help with the investigation when the woman goes overboard and is drowned.

In the luxurious, artificial and claustrophobic atmosphere of the luxury liner many days from land, it becomes Brown’s task to explore the numerous intrigues and secrets amongst his fellow passengers. This is made harder because, for the first time, Brown is not the investigator on the sidelines but has formed a romantic interest in a young widow, Ann Stewart, but she is preoccupied with a private vendetta of her own and he cannot reach her. ‘She turned away, and leaning over the rail of the ship she looked down into the black water. With a clear,
flute-like sound she began to whistle a tune, a curious, half-reckless, half-plaintive tune, that troubled his ear
because he knew it and could not place it. The notes fell and rose, and he felt that if he walked away from her she would not notice his absence or ever think of him again.’

As with Sayers’ Peter Wimsey and Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn, at the end of this first encounter Brown does not win his fair lady. If Gill had not died the year after Crime de Luxe was published, we may have discovered whether in later books Romance would have been kind to Benvenuto Brown but now we will never know.

Gill was an excellent writer with delightful characters, interesting plots and a subtle humour. Her settings had a liveliness and freshness that make them stand out amongst Golden Age authors. She was outlived by both of her husbands and it is ironic that both have enjoyed greater and longer-lasting fame in their various fields than she achieved. It is to be hoped, with the republication of her three crime novels, that she may be read, enjoyed and remembered as she deserves to be.

The Crime Coast
Published by Dean Street Press. ISBN: 978-1911579199.ASIN: B01MR4ATCI
 What Dread Hand?
Published by Dean Street Press. ISBN: 978-1911579212. ASIN: B01N7QIX04
Crime de Luxe
Published by Dean Street Press. ISBN: 978-1911579236.ASIN: B01MS66F22

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel,
The Deadly Dames. 
Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times. 
The Terminal Velocity of Cats the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013.
Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.

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