Last year, you may remember that I took part in the tour for Antony M Brown’s first book, The Green Bicycle Mystery. It was the first in the Cold Case Jury series of looking at old cases that are particularly mysterious. Death of an Actress examines the disappearance of Eileen ‘Gay’ Gibson, a young actress who goes missing from a luxury liner off the coast of Africa. I have an extract for you plus a short review. But first, the blurb.
In October 1947, a luxury liner steams across the equator off the coast of Africa. A beautiful actress disappears from her first-class cabin and a dashing deck steward is accused of her murder. The evidence against him appears damning, and although he protests his innocence, he is found guilty and sentenced to death.
Using recently discovered police files, the full story is told for the first time – with new evidence, including the original detective reports and statements from witnesses not called to trial.
Was it murder? Or was the steward telling the truth?
Take your seat on the Cold Case Jury…
The following extract is from Chapter 6 of Death of an Actress. It reconstructs the moment James Camb confessed to being inside Gay’s cabin when she died. His words are taken verbatim from his signed police statement.
The room sank into a deathly quiet. The detectives looked impassively at the deck steward, who cast his eyes down at the desk. Each minute dragged and seemed like ten. The tension mounted, but still not a word was said. The silence was shattered when Camb scraped his chair across the floor towards the table and stubbed out his cigarette. “Can you take this down in shorthand? I will make a quick statement.”
Without showing any emotion, Quinlan nodded, but his pulse quickened. Was this a confession or would Camb merely repeat his story? “We will take it down just as quickly on the typewriter,” Plumley responded. He took a large Imperial typewriter from the table at the back of the room and wound a clean sheet of paper around its platen.
“James Camb,” the detective sergeant announced, “you are not obliged to say anything unless you wish to, but anything you say will be written down and may be used in evidence. Do you understand?”
Camb affirmed he did, and to the slow tapping of keys dictated his statement. “I went to Miss Gibson’s cabin at about 11 o’clock on Friday 17 October 1947, and during the course of the conversation with her I made an appointment to meet her that night. I knocked at the door after I had finished work at about one o’clock, but there was no answer.”
Camb waited for Plumley to catch up, before continuing. “I opened the door of her cabin and found it was empty. I then went forward to the Well Deck, where I sat for about half an hour smoking. I then returned to Miss Gibson’s cabin at about two o’clock and found her there.”
Camb was changing his story. Quinlan knew the suspect was about to reveal more information, but how much more? He listened, the anticipation rising with every sentence.
“After a short conversation I got into bed, with her consent. Intimacy took place. Whilst in the act of sexual intercourse she clutched at me, foaming at the mouth. I immediately ceased the act, but she was very still. I felt for her heartbeats, but could not find any. She was at that time very still, and I cannot offer any explanation as to how the bells came to be rung, as I most definitely did not touch them myself. Thinking she had fainted, I tried artificial respiration on her. Whilst doing this the nightwatchman knocked at the door and attempted to open it. I shut the door again, saying it was all right.
“Then I panicked, as I thought he had gone to the bridge to report to the officer of the watch, as I did not want to be found in such a compromising position. I bolted the door, and again tried artificial respiration. After a few minutes I could not find a sign of life.”
The patter of typewriter keys stopped as Camb hesitated. He did not know whether revealing everything was the correct course of action, but having been up for a straight 24 hours, he only wanted to get this over and sleep. What he said next would shock the world and bring the noose to within an inch of his neck.
As I wrote last time for this series, I haven’t been on a jury. When reading this novel, I felt keenly the responsibility of making the right decision in this case. Antony M Brown sets out the book using true police and court records and photos from the court case (see above), as well as fictionalising some of the events.
And they are very strange events. Eileen ‘Gay’ Gibson was a young aspiring actress. She was returning to the UK after starring in a play in South Africa. She had letters of introduction for theatres so it appeared that she had ambitious plans for her acting career. However, there were also rumours she was pregnant. Was she going back to the UK to seek a termination or give birth away from the prying eyes of her strict parents? We’ll never know because Gay Gibson disappeared. James Camb was the last person to see her alive. It all appears fairly straightforward. But as Antony M Brown shows, this case is anything but straightforward.
I so much want to tell you more about the evidence but like a good member of any jury, I can’t discuss the case. Antony M Brown outlines all the evidence and then asks us, the readers, to make our own decision. This is a truly fascinating crime and a recent BBC TV programme, The Porthole Mystery, explored the trial of James Camb. Did he murder Gay Gibson? Or was it manslaughter or misadventure? You’ll have to read Death of an Actress to examine the evidence for yourself before making your own verdict.
When you read crime fiction, you’re always thinking about the whodunit – who’s responsible for the crime. But with Antony M Brown’s books, a suspect is already in place. The question then is whether he or she really did do it. And after reading the evidence you can go to coldcasejury.com to give your verdict. There are more books planned for the Cold Case Jury and I’m looking forward to seeing what other past crimes Antony M Brown is going to illuminate for us.
I’d like to thank Melanie Sambells of Mirror Books for asking me to take part in the tour.
About the author
Antony M. Brown is an award-winning essayist, former magazine editor-in-chief and member of the Crime Writers’ Association. He published several Cold Case Jury e-books – true crime mysteries in which the reader is invited to deliver the verdict on what they believe might have happened – before signing a four book deal with Mirror Books in January 2017.