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We are most grateful that Poisoned Pen Press has seen fit to bring out a new edition of Gentill's 2013 GENTLEMEN FORMERLY DRESSED, the fifth among her Rowland Sinclair mysteries. As Rowly and his liberal artistic friends try to solve the mystery of why Lord Pierrepont should have died in a woman's nightie at his club, readers are treated to a tongue-in-cheek tour of things British in 1933, just on the eve of the war. As a period piece, GENTLEMEN is of interest because the British, and the world, do not know they at the brink of a terrible awakening. While ladies wear hats that will impress and discuss the prince, butlers serve tea, and gentlemen, those who know what they are about, do dress with propriety; all the while, malevolent forces gather to crush the world so carefully arranged.
Dramatis personae: Rowland Sinclair, called Rowly, wealthy Aussie, a painter of some taste and ability; Edna, called Ed, a sculptress (the era is pre-feminist), and Rowly's significant other; Elias Isaacs, Rowly's friend, called Milton for his propensity to spout lines of other people's poetry instead of writing some himself, who is not at all properly dressed because he wears a cravat; Wilfred Sinclair, Aussie delegate to the London Economic Conference and Rowly's straightlaced brother, who is always about rescuing Rowly; his wife Kate; their six-year-old son, whose prodigality with language and manners is amusing; Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, Rowly's uncle, who turns up unaccountably in all sorts of places and knows an awful lot about everything; Stanley Melbourne Bruce, Lord High Commissioner to Australia; Ethyl, his wife, without whose excellent gossip and social connections one simply could not get around; Cecil F. Buchan, called "the Countess," who crossdresses and prefers men; Alfred Dawe, Viscount Pierrepont, whom we meet post-mortem; his sister-in-law the Hon. Mrs. John Dawe, who drinks and faints, both frequently; her daughter Allie, an aspiring songstress with little taste and little voice, fingered by Scotland Yard as the murderess; Theophrastis and Diogenes Thistlewaite, the Lords Harcourt; Euphemia Pierrepont, sister to the Lords Harcourt, who has very recently and very, very quickly indeed, been married to Viscount Pierrepont; William Joyce, outspoken and violent member of the British Union of Facists, sinisterly marked with a scar on his face; Mr. Ambrose and his six stout sons, Jewish tailors, who appear just in the nick of time with a load of manikins; butlers, diplomats, HRH Prince George; London's finest at Scotland Yard; spies; and members of the Salvation Army, who do exactly as they should.
The murderee, Alfred Dawe, is taken care of pretty early in the novel, poor fellow, leaving red herrings scattered untidily about. The novel unfolds as follows: Rowly and friends come up with possible motives, means, and opportunities, then dash out of their hotel room to pursue their ideas. Rowly's body seems a magnet for trouble, and after he finds said trouble, his brother Wilfred rescues him and shakes his head sorrowfully while Milton, in his cravat, God save him, spouts poetry. Through Rowly and friends, readers take a trip through Madame Tussaud's waxworks and meet some of the sculptors. We attend an international economic conference to set a worldwide monetary standard (which might have averted World War II), observing international diplomacy in all its intricacy (but the Americans rejected the plan). We attend two balls, one in which all the dancers are men, and one in which HRH Prince George makes a pass at Ed. Rowly runs into H. G. Wells (a truly erudite man, fully in charge of his senses, he views the entire human comedy with grim quietness) and Evelyn Waugh (a nasty sort who would steal a muffin from his mum). We meet Winston Churchill as England's elder statesman and a public face of sanity.
There are so many daffy titled folk in this novel, it is a caution. They are contrasted with the blackshirted Fascists, who seem to be professional haters and who jump out of hiding to thrash our hero when least expected. With their anti-Semitic rhetoric, they are the British face of Nazism. The Nazis and the Fascisti are those elements in humanity that fear change and locate those fears in otherness. It made this reviewer's hair stand up when the novelist has Fascist William Joyce shout that he is going to make England great again, just before he beats up our hero for being a Jew-loving Communist. The Facisti and their allies-in-thought, hard, humorless, joyless, single-minded, single-tongued, contrast with the rest of the novel's characters, not all loveable, but all pursuing very multiple, individualistic, diverse, at least partly harmless activities.
I recommend this novel as a lighthearted read about a heavy time in history.
§ Dr. C. Downs, Professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, teaches American literature and is a fan of the well-turned whodunit.
Reviewed by Cathy Downs, May 2018
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