The Danger Within (1952) by Michael Gilbert

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Door

My journey into Gilbert’s work was quite a bumpy one, beginning with Mr Calder and Mr Behrens (1982), a short story collection which nearly put me off Gilbert for life. However I gave Gilbert’s work another chance last year, reading Death Has Deep Roots (1951), which was surprisingly good and today’s read, my first of the year, has exceeded this previous read.

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Detective fiction has been set in all kinds of unusual places: space, private zoos, remote islands, trains, but I have to say this is my first mystery novel set in a WW2 Italian POW camp. This is the type of setting which can easily be mishandled, yet Gilbert’s depiction of life within this camp is first rate, portraying both British and Italian characters fairly, not resorting to stereotypes. Though this shouldn’t be too surprising considering that during the war Gilbert spent a fair bit of time in various Italian POW camps. Gilbert in 1943 was in North Africa as part of the Royal Horse Artillery, yet eventually found himself imprisoned in Italy. He and his friend Tony Davies made numerous escape attempts, some of which find their way into the story. Gilbert’s time in the war is also briefly examined in the introduction of the Rue Morgue Press’ reprint and although facing much danger his experiences are at times amusing such as when he disguised an escape talk he was giving by calling it, ‘The Principles of Marine Insurance.’ Apparently the Italian guards didn’t find it curious why such a topic should be so popular. I was wondering whether due to the setting, this book would become quite bleak and depressing, yet again this is not the case, with Gilbert injecting pockets of humour into the tale, albeit some of it black humour. Death is an ever present figure in this book, which heightens the tension in the book, though Gilbert does not allow it to quench out the prisoner’s hopes and sense of humour.

The fortress at Gavi, which often housed recaptured prisoners

From the very beginning we are aware that there is talk of the British plans to enter Italy, an event which becomes a greater and greater reality as the book unfolds. Yet the reader is aware that although this is good news for the British prisoners of war, it also leaves them open to new dangers, with the fear that if the Italians surrender, the German army may swoop in with reprisals. This is the backdrop to this mystery’s central crime, the death of a prisoner in highly unusual circumstances. The prisoners are kept in different huts and in hut C are six notorious escapers and general troublemakers. Underneath their kitchen they are digging a tunnel, yet they are in for a surprise when one morning they find Cyriakos Coutoules, a Greek POW dead inside it. Their first thoughts are to remove the body elsewhere to protect the tunnel, sacrificing another one underneath a different hut. Yet after this initial response they soon begin to wonder – how did Coutoules get inside the tunnel? Their hut is locked from the outside at night and it takes four men to lift the tunnel’s opening. It appears Coutoules has died of asphyxiation, yet it is unclear whether the partial tunnel collapse caused this or whether he went into the tunnel already dead. Questions are raised as to whether the six in hut C were responsible, as rumours had been going round that Coutoules had been informing on the escapees’ activities.

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The Italian guards and officers are quick to cry murder and some unfortunately placed fingerprints in the sacrificed tunnel put one of the six, Captain Roger Byfold in very hot water. However some of the British prisoners are quick to realise that the Italians are acting out of character and in a way were too prepared for this death. Could they be involved somehow? And are they aware of Hut C’s tunnel? But when Byfold is arrested the British prisoners begin in earnest to try and solve the mystery, though whether it will save Byfold remains to be seen.

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One of the main strengths of this book is that Gilbert doesn’t impose a detective fiction plot onto a WW2 adventure setting, as the detective work is skilfully interwoven into the text and the fairly unique setting is used to good effect, making the central mystery very intriguing. For the characters and readers initially it feels like an impossible crime as in such a setup there are such high levels of surveillance from guards and prisoners alike, it beggars belief that anyone could commit a murder and dispose of the body in such a way and not be noticed. It is also to Gilbert’s credit that he doesn’t use the plot version of a cop out and have a character who knows what has gone on but hasn’t felt like telling anyone until the last few pages.

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Goyles, one of the six, is the character who does most of investigating, yet the references to detective work and novels is minimal and not overdone. Instead Goyle’s actions are shown to spring from a natural response to an ever-changing and highly dangerous situation. Given the setting you could easily expect Gilbert’s writing to be all action, with little time for characterisation. Yet again this prediction would be wrong as although there are a lot of characters in the story, given that it is set in a POW camp, Gilbert wisely focuses on dozen or so characters to differing extents. Gilbert, due to his own personal experiences, has captured the social dynamics in such a closed community well, including the differing opinions prisoners had towards escaping, as not all were keen on rocking the boat in this fashion. This also allows for some comedy to creep into the book, as well as showing the animosities which can build up. Camp entertainment is another way Gilbert brings light relief into this book, such as when one of the prisoners says: ‘I hope there’s not going to be any nonsense about allowing baseball on the rugger pitch… I hear the sports committee have been approached.’ To which another replies, ‘Baseball. Surely we haven’t sunk to that.’ There is also an amateur dramatics group within the POW camp, which is episodically viewed by the reader as they plan their next production. Yet as well as bringing light relief Gilbert also uses it to contribute towards the central mystery. Equally there are moments of understatement which are also entertaining such as when one prisoner when asked why he was visiting another hut after dark, (which is against orders), says that he’s ‘just gone over to make a fourth at bridge in Hut A.’

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Images from the British film adaptation of the story

Overall I thought this was a really good read and the historical context gave the investigation a time factor which adds pressure and tension. It also makes you wonder whether in the end solving the mystery will actually matter and Gilbert’s method of resolving it is realistic and very much of real life, adding shades of moral complexity and ambiguity. I did not guess the solution myself but Goyles in his explanation of the crime goes over the clues which led him to the solution, clues which in fairness to Gilbert, are available to the reader. Although this is only my third Gilbert novel I think this shows him writing at his best. I would highly recommend this book as it has an interesting central puzzle, a brilliantly used setting and realistic and engaging characters.

Rating: 4.5/5

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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20 Responses to The Danger Within (1952) by Michael Gilbert

  1. JJ says:

    I remember really enjoying this one when I was first getting into impossible crimes (though, I seem to remember that it doesn’t actually qualify…). It really struck me as very similar to The Great Escape, though it precedes that by about a decade I believe. A shame that my econd Gilbert (Smallbone Deceased) wasn’t to my liking at all — I’ll have to get on with Close Quarters before too long, as it’s been patiently sitting around long enough waiting for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes made me think of the great escape as well. I think perhaps Gilbert’s writing is at its best when it has a war time flavour as Death Has Deep Roots which where a murder has roots in WW2 also worked me. I too did wonder whether it probably counted as an impossible given the final solution.

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  2. Very nice review of an outstanding book.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. TomCat says:

    I’m glad to read you found this one both interesting and enjoyable. The Danger Within has been one of my personal favorites for many years now and one of the best examples of successfully blending various (crime) genres, which also happened to be semi-autobiographical, occasionally funny and contains an original impossible crime situation. A genuine classic among WWII mysteries!

    Your review also reminds me that I should return to Gilbert somewhere this year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was wondering about the central crime and whether it truly counts as an impossible crime, so I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this area, especially since your fellow locked room/impossible crime fanatic (JJ) seems to think it doesn’t qualify as an impossible crime. Not being as well read in this area I don’t know the finer points on what counts and what doesn’t count as an impossible crime.

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      • TomCat says:

        JJ is 100% wrong on this one. The crime absolutely qualifies as an impossible crime: the only opening to the tunnel is blocked by a huge stove, which required the combined effort of four or five strong men to move. But that’s not what happened. So how did the body end up in the collapsed tunnel?

        It’s not a very common impossibility, I’ll give you that, with ultimately a simple, but clever, answer as to how it occured. However, it still qualifies as an impossible crime. One that also fitted like a puzzle piece in the picture of the overall plot. No idea why JJ dismissed it as one.

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      • JJ says:

        Yeah, I’m not entirely sure why either, but I have that impression from reading it many years back. Curious…

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      • Glad my qualms were unfounded, as I was wondering whether the solution had invalidated it as an impossible crime, due to its’ sneakiness.

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  4. JFW says:

    Thanks for the review. I’ve been dithering as to whether or not to purchase this novel in my local Amazon store, and your review helped to tip the decision one way (ie, the right but costly way).

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  5. realthog says:

    An interesting account of a Gilbert that I haven’t but obviously should have read.

    I’m sure that everybody and their aunt and uncle (except JJ) has told you that, if you want to get into Michael Gilbert, the place to start is Smallbone Deceased. It’s the solitary mystery novel that I make a point of rereading every few years.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Another vote for Smallbone Deceased from me…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Book of the Month: January 2017 | crossexaminingcrime

  8. Pingback: Continental Crimes (2017) ed. by Martin Edwards | crossexaminingcrime

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