Death Of An Actress by Antony M Brown
Published in time for the 70th anniversary of one of the most dramatic trials in British criminal history.
DEATH OF AN ACTRESS is the second in the Cold Case Jury Collection, a unique series of true crime titles. Each case study tells the story of an unsolved crime, or one in which the verdict is open to doubt. Fresh evidence is presented and the reader is invited to deliver their own verdict.
October 1947. A luxury liner steams over the equator off the coast of West Africa and a beautiful actress disappears from her cabin. Suspicion falls on a dashing deck steward with a reputation for entering the cabins of female passengers. When the liner docks at Southampton, the steward is questioned by police. Protesting his innocence, he makes an astonishing admission that shocks everyone, and is charged with murder. His trial at the historic Great Hall in Winchester draws the world’s media. He is found guilty and sentenced to hang.
But was the verdict sound?
Many believe not.
Now for the first time, Antony M. Brown has secured unprecedented access to the police file, enabling the definitive story to be told. Included in the file are original court exhibits, including a hairbrush with strands of the actress’s red hair. Could a personal effect left behind in her cabin provide clues to how she might have died? Take your seat on the Cold Case Jury…
Q) What’s different about the Cold Case Jury true crime collection?
A) It is a series of cold murder cases, normally from the first half of last century, which combine history with a mystery. I have three goals. First, to engage the reader directly. Rather than passively describing events, I use dramatic reconstruction to show what happened and what might have happened. Second, to present key evidence in a special section. Where possible, I introduce new evidence, too. In Death of an Actress, I am the first author to have seen the police file, and new evidence and photographs are published for the first time. Third, to invite readers to deliver their verdicts online on what they think happened. Hence the reader becomes part of the case, helping to bring it to some closure.
Q) What is Death of an Actress about?
A) The second book in the series is about the tragic death of 21-year-old Gay Gibson in 1947. She disappeared from the passenger liner Durban Castle as it sailed from Cape Town to Southampton. A deck steward, James Camb, was found guilty of her murder and sentenced to hang, although many believe there was insufficient evidence to convict. Others believe he was innocent.
Q) Why is it an interesting case?
A) First, it is a murder on the high seas, which is rare. Second, there was no body – it was dumped into the sea. Again, this is unusual in a murder case because the body reveals the cause of death, and without one, the evidence is circumstantial. Third, there was no body because the only suspect confessed to disposing of it while protesting his innocence at the same time. Lastly, the case is from 1947, a different era from today in terms of travel, moral values and medicine. All these factors play a part in this fascinating case.
Q) Why did you select the excerpt below?
A) The extract dramatically reconstructs the first encounter between Gay Gibson and James Camb on board the Durban Castle. It is based solely on James Camb’s account, of course, but many details were gleaned from other evidence and witness testimony. We know from the statements of her friends – unheard at the trial and published for the first time in the book – that Gay talked intimately to strangers. Did this conversation spark attraction between her and the steward? Or was everything distorted in the mind of the man who would later be charged with her murder? Whatever you believe, it is no exaggeration to say that this encounter started a chain reaction that lead to the death of an actress.
Camb returned, holding a tray aloft with the palm of his right hand, his left tidily tucked behind his back. As he placed the cocktail glass carefully onto the drink mat in front of her, he observed the spark in her beautiful brown eyes.
“A John Collins, madam. Enjoy,” he said, bowing theatrically. Gay giggled and took a sip. “That’s perfect. Thank you.” She replaced the glass on the table, which gently moved up and down with the swell, as if the ship were breathing.
“So, you’re returning from holiday?” Camb asked, eager to restart the conversation. “No, I’ve just finished performing in a play in Johannesburg – Golden Boy. Have you heard of it?” Camb shook his head. “Well, my leading man was Eric Boon. I bet you’ve heard of him.” “Yes, of course, the Thunderbolt. He’s a good boxer.”
“He’s also an actor, you know. He’s already been in a film, Champagne Charlie.” The steward looked blankly. “With Tommy Trinder and Stanley Holloway?” Gay could see he was still none the wiser. “Well, I guess he brought some star quality to the production, being famous ’n’ all.”
“Is the play coming to London? I could come and see it when I get some leave.” “No, it finished early. It received good reviews and everything, but they closed the theatre.” “Sounds like tough luck. What will you do now?” “I’ve got some introductions to theatres back home.” She took another sip of her cocktail. “And your boyfriend’s joining you later?” Camb asked cheekily, although his only interest in the answer was to assess her likely availability.
“Charles has to run his business, so he couldn’t come with me, but I can’t stop thinking about him.” She placed both her hands across her breast. “We’ve been going steady for only a month, but I’m already crazy about him. He’s taken me to all the best restaurants and clubs in Johannesburg, you know.”
Camb was not deterred by her proclaimed affection, but her answer seemed a little odd. “Why not stay and act in South Africa, then?” he asked. “Well…” Gay hesitated, glancing down to the table. She took another sip of her drink. “Things are a little delicate right now.” “You mean he doesn’t feel the same way?” “No, he’s crazy about me, too. I just know he is,” she gushed. “Well, if you were my girl, I wouldn’t let you go,” he joked. Camb expected a giggle in response but instead Gay suddenly looked pensive. “It’s just…” she started, taking a puff of her cigarette. “Well, let’s just say, things may have become a little… complicated.” Camb asked jocularly, “You don’t mean to tell me you’re having a baby?”
Gay didn’t take offence at Camb’s familiarity. “Well, it’s rather too soon to know,” she replied cautiously. “If that’s the position, why don’t you marry the man?” There was a long pause. “It’s not quite as easy as that.” “The longer you leave it…” “He’s already married,” she cut in.
Camb said nothing, as he surmised the probable purpose of her trip to England. Gay changed the subject, her mood brightening a little as she spoke. “I’m going to have a rest after lunch. I always feel a little sleepy then. Would you mind bringing me a tray of afternoon tea in my cabin? At about four o’clock?” “I cannot leave the Promenade Deck, especially at that time,” Camb explained. “I’m busy with the tea service. When you want afternoon tea, summon the cabin steward and tell him what you want. I’ll prepare your tray and he will bring it to your cabin.” Gay nodded as a male voice called out, “Steward, is it possible for someone else to get served here?” “You’d better go,” she smiled.
Camb slid a printed Manila slip and a stubby pencil across the table. “Could you sign and date it. You settle your account at the end of each week.” Gay filled out the docket. “And your cabin number, please.” He took the slip and circled five pence in the top corner, although he was more interested in knowing the cabin number. He said goodbye, and promptly left. The next time he looked into the Long Gallery there was only an empty, lipstick marked cocktail glass on the corner table.
Image from the inside the book:
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