First published as a novel in 1934 ‘Ten Minute Alibi’ is based on the play of the same name by Anthony Armstrong and has presumably been adapted as a novel some time during its run in London by Herbert Shaw. I have to say presumably because there is nothing in the book to say what role Herbert Shaw had in writing it, or indeed any biographical details for him. The play was very successful playing across America and on Broadway it had 89 performances (from 17th October 1933 to January 1934) whilst in London’s West End, it had 857 performances (from 2nd January 1933 to 23rd February 1935) but having read it I can definitely say that the novel is less than riveting so not a good transformation by Shaw, I think I would have preferred to read the original play.
The plot however is interesting, Philip Sevilla appears to be a well to do club owner in London but he has a much more lucrative sideline in people trafficking, specifically innocent English women with few remaining family members whom he seduces before packing them off to South America to be forced to work as prostitutes. The way his operation works is spelled out with an example at the start of the book where we witness the downfall of Muriel Cartney. Having established that she has only a small number of people that would be particularly concerned if she disappeared Sevilla works his charms on her telling her that he is married but that his wife is in an insane asylum so he is desperately lonely and would marry her if he could get a divorce but that is unlikely due to his wife’s medical condition. Finally he persuades her to give up her job and rented apartment to join him in Paris where they can live, apparently as man and wife, without any of their London acquaintances being around to spot the lie and ruin her reputation.
Once in Paris he then appears to ‘accidentally’ run into his ‘friend’, in reality his business partner in the trafficking operation Jose Garcia, and starts to arrange the handover of Muriel. At first all is well and they stay in a lovely hotel in Paris apparently whilst he looks for something more permanent, this he would normally do for two to four weeks enjoying the nights with his victim before claiming that pressing business issues with the club means that he has to return to London to sort these out, Assuring Muriel that he would be back in a few days and that Garcia would look after her whilst he was away he would leave and never return just sending increasing worrying, and false, messages that the people he had put in charge of the club had ruined him and she was on her own but he had no money left to support her. Unwilling to return to England as a woman who had been living in sin Garcia then suggests that he has contacts in Buenos Aires where Muriel could get a new career on the stage and effectively start again and he would willingly accompany her there to see her settled in. Once in Argentina she would be handed over to the gangsters and pimps that would then keep her prisoner and force her into sex work. Sevilla meanwhile would pocket at least a thousand pounds for delivery of another victim.
This sounds all too modern, although nowadays it is women from poorer nations falsely promised legitimate work in the West only to arrive and be told that they need to pay back the enormously inflated cost of transporting them by working in the sex industry. I was surprised to see roughly the same process in a book written in the 1930’s, I’ve never seen it as a plot line in any other contemporary work and I can see why the shocking nature of the story would have generated publicity for the original play. Having spent the first twenty or so pages detailing the story of Muriel and through that Sevilla’s real means of earning big money we then move on to his planned next victim, Betty Findon and this is where the book really starts as Betty has a man who secretly loves her, trainee barrister Colin Derwent, and he will do anything to thwart Sevilla’s plans.
However this is also where the book started to lose my interest, the ongoing scenes between Betty and Sevilla, Sevilla and Colin, Sevilla and his manservant and other two handers would clearly work well on a stage but it’s all too bitty for a book. The dream sequence after Sevilla drugs Colin to prevent him seeing Betty to try to warn her again feels odd, and the means of how to kill Sevilla and still have an alibi by altering clocks so that he could be seen to be elsewhere at the same time revealed to Colin in his dream is all too complicated to work as it needs split second timing involving people who don’t know it involves split second timing. The plan involves Colin catching Sevilla at home and alone before taking Betty to Paris to replicate his previous modus operandi. However when Sevilla needs to be home for the first part of Colin’s alibi to work he’s out and when he does return it’s with Betty and the manservant is also there, both of which are not visible when Colin finally arrives to carry out his plan which involves claiming to have £1,500 to pay off Sevilla but in reality shooting him and staging it as a suicide.
I’m not going to go further into what happens in this review in case anyone fancies braving the rather clunky text for what is actually quite an unusual plotted story especially for the period. Maybe however see if you can find the play script rather than the novel. My copy is the 1938 Penguin first edition and whilst there may have been a reprint in the 1940’s this appears to be the last time the novel was published in English, which I think speaks volumes for its popularity. The play is actually easier, and cheaper, to find in various 1930’s anthologies.