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.”

In A Man’s World.

The Innocent Bottle

Lucy Beatrice Malleson (1899 – 1973) wrote general fiction under the Anne Meredith pen name, but more famously as “Anthony Gilbert”, with over 70 mystery novels to her credit, most of those featuring the somewhat groundbreaking (kind of hard-boiled and vulgar) London lawyer Arthur Crook, that long running series beginning in 1936 and continuing to the last novel in 1974, released after the author’s death. Several of Malleson’s Anthony Gilbert novels were adapted to British films in the 1940’s, as well as a 1963 Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode, and two of her short stories were Edgar Award nominees.

Breaking into the crowded field of what many consider the ‘golden age’ of both British and American crime fiction, Lucy Malleson decided to adopt a male pen name and stuck with it, apparently quite successfully…going so far as to pose for her author photo dressed as a man.

Anthony Gilbert Books Montage

I first spotted her re-released Orion Publishing memoir Three-A-Penny — In A Man’s World: The Classic Memoir Of A 1930’s Writer, with a new introduction by Sophie Hannah, at the Crime Fiction Lover blog’s e-newsletter. It looks like the UK edition comes out before Christmas, though a U.S. trade paperback isn’t due till April, 2020. Not sure I can wait till Spring for this one. Methinks some bookstore clerk’s going to be pestered once again this week.



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