I recently mentioned that I had some exciting things coming up on this blog, and this post is the first!
I’ve been lucky enough to receive the opportunity to talk to True Crime author Antony M Brown about his latest book, Death of An Actress.
The second installment in his Cold Case Jury series, Death of An Actress takes the reader back to 1947, aboard a steam liner on which actress Gay Gibson was travelling to Southampton. Somewhere along the way, her body ended up in the ocean, and a steward named James Camb is the prime suspect in a murder case.
I spoke to Antony about his latest work, and about the Gibson case, to find out more.
How did this book come about? Its not a case I’ve come across before.
I came across an article on the case years ago and was intrigued by the mystery around Gay Gibson’s death. The trial of James Camb was actually held in my home town of Winchester. We’ve had many famous trials before, but I had never heard of this one.
I started to research the case in greater detail, because I wanted to find out if the verdict was safe. If Camb was obviously guilty, then I knew the case wouldn’t be for me, as I need that element of mystery. It turns out that legal commentators who’ve looked at this case are unhappy with the guilty verdict Camb received. They didn’t think the evidence justified the outcome, so I wanted to investigate further.
During my research, I contacted the Hampshire Constabulary History Society, and spoke to the Vice Chairman about the Gibson case. In a huge stroke of luck, the Vice Chairman had just returned from the Southampton police archives with two files on the case! The police were going to incinerate the files, but they asked the society if they’d like to preserve them, which they did. The very next day I happened to call and ask for information. When I received them, there was so much additional information that was never brought to trial, it allowed me to present the case in high definition.
Your writing style in this book is completely different to any other true crime account I’ve read.
For example, you speak directly to the reader, almost as if you’re presenting the case in court, or telling a late-night story. Why did you choose this style of address?
I always wanted to use direct address as it’s the perfect style to adopt in a true crime book. When you’re presenting a case, you need the reader to feel as if you’re actually speaking to them, as if you were the judge or the barrister in the court room – it helps them to feel engaged.
I have a personal frustration with the true crime genre, as I find that generally, authors do a lot of sharpening and levelling – that is, sharpening the focus on the evidence which supports their own personal theory, and levelling everything that doesn’t. It can feel as if you’re being fed a story, and as an author, I want to bring honesty and engagement to the reader.
Another interesting style choice – you’ve separated the book not just into chapters, but also into acts.
Why did you choose this style and what did you hope to achieve through this?
I’ve chosen to separate the book into acts because it ties in with the subject – the death of an actress. I wanted to convey the drama of the case. And Cold Case Jury books are normally divided into parts.
In the first section, I dramatically reconstruct the case. I help the reader to feel as if they were on that boat with Gay Gibson, witnessing the events as they unfolded. The second part of the book gives the reader all the evidence on which the reconstructions are based, even letting them see the original police files. I want to put this information into the reader’s hands, so they have the genuine feeling of being treated like a juror.
The final part is my opinion of the case. This part of the book is always last, as it’s important that the reader comes to their own conclusion before hearing mine. When I self-published these books, I actually left my opinion out, and included it only on my website. But, when I signed my book deal, my publisher thought the book would be incomplete without adding my opinion as the conclusion.
After researching the case and starting to write the book, had you come to your own conclusion on whether Camb was guilty or innocent?
Did that change by the time you’d come to write the chapter on your opinion?
It’s really important for me to get this across – even though I’ve done the research and believe I’ve found all the available facts, I don’t pretend to have the answers.
When I first started researching this case, I was so sure Camb was guilty of murder. His story just doesn’t hold up, there’s no way he’s innocent! But after speaking with people associated with this case, I was asked if I’d ever considered a verdict of manslaughter, and I hadn’t. I thought he was either guilty of murder or innocent, I had never considered a third option.
As a cold case juror, I look for the verdict that has the most explanatory power. Which one explains the most pieces of key evidence? In this case, some evidence points to innocence, some points to murder. His strange, innocent-like reaction in the police station contrasts with his blatant lies, for example. And you can see from his statements later on in life that he’s still lying about what happened, but this does not mean he was guilty of murder, as I explain in my book. Looking at all the evidence, I’ve come to a brand-new conclusion: Camb was guilty of manslaughter.
Despite this story being similar to that of an Agatha Christie novel, why do you think this case isn’t as notorious as say, The Black Dahlia case, which also took place in 1947?
The Black Dahlia murder was brutal. Her naked body was found cut into two pieces, and that kind of grisly murder attracts people. It remains unsolved. So the contrast to the Gay Gibson case couldn’t be greater. With Gay, there was no body to be found, very little physical evidence, and the alleged perpetrator found guilty of murder. However, they have one thing in common. Tragically, both involved the untimely death of an attractive young actress.
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 before signing a four book deal with Mirror Books in January 2017.
I received a copy of The Death of An Actress, and after visiting Antony’s website, I found the community to be fantastic. The very nature of CCJ Books invites readers to discuss true crime with like minded people. I know what its like to not be able to discuss your interests at a party because true crime is not a sexy subject.
Having devoured the book in a few sittings, I concluded that Camb is innocent. I don’t believe he’s a good person, or a particularly clever one, but the evidence surrounding Gibson’s health and Camb’s reaction in the police station leads me to assign death by misadventure to this case. Due to the style of the Cold Case Jury series, I would strongly advise that you pick up a copy of Death of An Actress and let me know what your verdict would be.