The Right Book At The Right Time: Three-A-Penny.


April showers might bring May flowers, but around here they’ve mostly brought monsoons, ‘sheltering-in’ a moot point when you’d drown if you stepped outside.

Other things large and small that we’ll just lump together under “Pandemic Fatigue” conspired to drag me down for several days. But before I could descend into any self-indulgent woe-is-me mindset, Golden Age British mystery author Lucy Malleson came to the rescue with her 1940 memoir Three-A-Penny, the 2019 US edition just out here this May.

Subtitled “In A Man’s World: The Classic Memoir of A 1930’s Writer”, this 80-year-old work reads more like a novel, arriving serendipitously as the perfect prescription to chase my own blues away. It’s hard to be bummed-out by the trivial when you’re reading a memoir from someone who endured real woes.

A contemporary of better-known British mystery writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, Lucy Malleson wrote some sixty novels under the Anthony Gilbert pen name, along with numerous other books under her own and other names, plus thirty radio plays and an impressive number of short mysteries, most of those published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Her engagingly written memoir recounts the stressful times of the First World War’s horrors, the 1918 Flu Pandemic and England’s interwar economic chaos, which Lucy Malleson overcomes while enduring persistent gender discrimination at every turn. Struggling to get by on a secretary’s subsistence pay, she began writing short poems, then stories and finally sold her first novel, The Man Who Was London, inspired in part by a performance of the popular play The Cat And The Canary.

No matter the challenge, Malleson responds optimistically with unrelenting pragmatism . There’s no self-pity to be found in her memoir, only an utterly practical, determined person working her way through life in a man’s world. Her decision to pitch her first novel under a male pen name (and how she cooked up the ‘Anthony Gilbert’ moniker) is an absolute treat to read. But once the novel was due for publication, she was caught off-guard by the publisher’s request for an author bio – including publicity photos. Undeterred, Malleson got fitted for a custom wig and beard at a theatrical agency, posed for some photos and dreamed up a suitable background for ‘Anthony Gilbert’, an identity she carefully protected for years.

The Three-A-Penny title comes from fellow British mystery novelist Dorothy Sayers, who wrote, “You must remember, Anthony Gilbert, that although authors are three-a-penny to us, they are quite exciting to other people”. The book ends when Malleson is only halfway through her productive career, still brimming with optimism that her next story, next novel, or next script will be the one that finally achieves the fame and fortune that eluded her throughout her career.

“I don’t feel guilty that my books don’t sell ten thousand copies,” Malleson wrote in her memoir’s conclusion, “though I should love them to, and so would my publishers. When I was young, I confidently thought they would; when they didn’t, I was astounded. But it never occurred to me, when my average sales were 1,250 copies, to abandon writing and do something more lucrative. Besides, one day they may.”

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