Michael Gilbert & The British Library

The British Library has started off 2019 by reprinting 3 classics by Michael Gilbert (1912-2006). I’ve already reviewed these titles individually, so I decided to do a more general post on these latest reprints in the Crime Classics series instead.

Whilst Gilbert never got bogged down in formula, he did fulfil the adage of writing about what you know, as both his legal career and his time spent in an Italian POW camp during WW2, feature significantly in the titles under discussion today. Martin Edwards of course goes into these elements in much more detail in the introductions to the British Library reprints, yielding interesting nuggets of information such as the fact that Raymond Chandler was one of Gilbert’s clients. Now that’s definitely a good dinner party conversation starter…

I’ve read half a dozen works by Gilbert now and I have to admit to finding them of varying quality, holding a stronger preference for his earlier stories. On reflection I wonder whether this is because of Gilbert’s eschewing of formulaic writing and his leaning towards genre fusion. Martin in his introduction to Death Has Deep Roots suggests this is a risky choice and when it pays off the result is knock out success, but when it doesn’t… However, I have come to conclusion that one strength of Gilbert’s metamorphosing writing style is that there is invariably something for everyone, from nail biting legal thriller and war time mysteries, to impossible crimes, police procedurals and classic whodunnits, with accompanying amateur sleuths.

Smallbone Deceased (1950)

Synopsis:

‘Horniman, Birley and Craine is a highly respected legal firm with clients reaching to the highest in the land. When a deed box in the office is opened to reveal a corpse, the threat of scandal promises to wreak havoc on the firm’s reputation – especially as the murder looks like an inside job. The partners and staff of the firm keep a watchful and suspicious eye on their colleagues, as Inspector Hazlerigg sets out to solve the mystery of who Mr Smallbone was – and why he had to die.’

In proceeding in a chronological order I do have to start with the book, which didn’t quite work for me. However, it has many fans and is a popular face on Top 100 Crime Stories lists from the likes of Julian Symons to the CWA and Mystery Writers of America. In fairness there are a lot of elements I enjoy about it, from the quirky amateur sleuth who needs only two hours sleep due to para-insomnia, to the shocking reveal of the body and the use of an electricity power cut to create suspect alibis. For me there were pacing issues, but I appreciate this is a very subjective criticism, so if a classic whodunit with a legal milieu is your sort of read then it is certainly worth a try.

Death Has Deep Roots (1951)

Synopsis:

‘At the Central Criminal Court, an eager crowd awaits the trial of Victoria Lamartine, an active participant in the Resistance during the war. She is now employed at the Family Hotel in Soho, where Major Eric Thoseby has been found murdered. The cause of death? A stabbing reminiscent of techniques developed by the Maquisards. While the crime is committed in England, its roots are buried in a vividly depicted wartime France. Thoseby is believed to have fathered Lamartine’s child, and the prosecution insist that his death is revenge for his abandonment of Lamartine and her arrest by the Gestapo. A last-minute change in Lamartine’s defence counsel grants solicitor Nap Rumbold just eight days to prove her innocence, with the highest of stakes should he fail. The proceedings of the courtroom are interspersed with Rumbold’s perilous quest for evidence, which is aided by his old wartime comrades.’

For me, this is perhaps one of the best examples of Gilbert’s fusion approach to writing, working really well. As Martin puts it in his introduction this tale is an ‘unorthodox and highly enjoyable combination of courtroom drama and action thriller,’ with the action switching from the courts to thriller-like adventures in France. Floor plans equally provide a nod to the classic puzzle mystery. Anthony Boucher voiced a similar sentiment when he wrote that: ‘it’s hard to recall any technical tour de force of fusion quite so admirably integrated as this.’ As well as providing well-selected biographical information on Gilbert, Martin also includes an excerpt from an essay this author wrote on crime writing, entitled ‘The Moment of Violence,’ which can be found in Crime in Good Company (1959). I had not heard of this essay collection before, but I am definitely keen to track it down. But the point for mentioning this is that Gilbert considers the difficulty of writing a thriller:

‘A thriller is more difficult to write than a detective story… The detective story is the sonnet. It is precise, neat, satisfyingly symmetrical, constrained, but sustained, by the nicety of its form… The thriller is the ode. It has no formal rules at all. It has no precise framework. It has no top and, Heaven knows, no bottom.’

I think his idea certainly tweaks general opinion, as so very often people can suggest that thrillers are more often written these days than whodunnits, as they are easier to write. Yet Gilbert’s point, which I like, is that perhaps thrillers are harder to write really well.

It is a shame that this novel’s 1956 film adaptation, (Guilty? A.k.a. By Whose Hand?), was apparently not much of a success. Perhaps it is time for a re-make? It certainly has a lot in it to appeal to film makers, not least the central characters. When reviewing this title a while back it was actually one of the minor characters that intrigued me the most; a school teacher named Evans who was part of the commandos in the war. However the interesting part is his decisive sheering away from the commando look, adopting long hair and flamboyant clothing instead. He even withholds this information from his employers and for quite a thought-provoking, but comically put reason:

‘If I let on that I’d been in the Commandos and so on – you know what I mean. It takes an awful lot of living up to. Boys are such whole-hearted creatures, you’ve no idea. I’d have been expected to have a cold bath every morning in the winter and – why, good heavens, if a mad bull had appeared on the playing fields it would have been ‘Send for Evans.’ Life wouldn’t have been worth living. So I just told them I’d been a conscientious objector all the war and had been doing agricultural work in North Wales.’

For all its thriller aspects, this is a story which still holds a lot of depth and renders a powerful emotional response.

Death in Captivity (1952)

Synopsis:

‘A man is found dead in an escape tunnel in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp. Did he die in an accidental collapse – or was this murder? Captain Henry `Cuckoo’ Goyles, master tunneller and amateur detective, takes up the case. This classic locked-room mystery with a closed circle of suspects is woven together with a thrilling story of escape from the camp, as the Second World War nears its endgame and the British prisoners prepare to flee into the Italian countryside.’

This is the latest reprint by the British Library and is my personal favourite out of the three. There are obvious points to be awarded for originality, as this is the first and last impossible crime story that I have read which is set within a POW camp. Though more importantly because this unusual setting is rooted in Gilbert’s own experiences, the originality of the milieu is used to good effect. The almost claustrophobic nature of living within such a camp, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, really adds to the closed set of suspects, because how could someone kill a fellow prisoner without the act and the disposal of the body being seen? Added to which the location of the body, an escape tunnel, is not one which can be accessed without three people. The amateur sleuthing which is required, is done in a naturalistic fashion and the narrative has the dual tension of the prisoners still working on their escape. The usual modes of investigating a crime are moulded to fit the nature of the story, rather than uncomfortably imposed on top. Thankfully it seems like Gilbert had better fortune with the 1959 film adaptation of this work, entitled Danger Within in the UK and Breakout in the US.

Given the POW camp location I did wonder whether the book would be too bleak and grim, but I am happy to report that whilst the setting is a dark one, appropriate humour and comic relief is also interjected into the narrative, in a way which mirrors Gilbert’s own experiences. In the Rue Morgue Press’ earlier reprint of this text, it is mentioned that Gilbert disguised an escape talk he was giving by calling it, ‘The Principles of Marine Insurance,’ a scheme which worked surprisingly well. This British type of humour/bravado finds its place in the text too, such as when one prisoner when asked why he was visiting another hut after dark, (which is against orders), says that he’d ‘just gone over to make a fourth at bridge in Hut A.’

So as you can see Gilbert has much to offer mystery fans and I do hope you’ll give him a go. It’s been a while since I have tried any of his books so if you’ve got any other recommendations I would be happy to hear them. Can you name a Gilbert novel stronger than Death in Captivity? Fingers crossed someone will accept this challenge…

22 comments

  1. It’s always interesting to see the covers on these British Library Crime Classics books. I would have never imagined those covers for Death Has Deep Roots or The Danger Within, but I can understand how they capture the setting without necessarily focusing on the predictable aspect.

    “Genre fusion” is a great way to capture the few Michael Gilbert books that I’ve read. You’ll be a bit disappointed if you approach them purely for the mystery, but you’re going to enjoy an aspect of the story that you never anticipated.

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    • Yes I was taken aback by the covers too, but I guess they make themselves distinct from those gone by and they are in keeping with the series as a whole. Genre fusion is a tricky one to do well, but I think Gilbert had a number of successes with it. What other writers do you think do it well? (or badly?)

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      • I like the British Library covers. They don’t really reflect the content of the stories, but they do paint a picture of the period in which they were written. These covers are like an illustrated stroll through the early twentieth century and they give you an idea all of these detective stories take place in the same universe. I like to think that’s the case.

        Genre fusion is a tricky one to do well, but I think Gilbert had a number of successes with it. What other writers do you think do it well? (or badly?)

        Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel is one of the best and earliest example of the hybrid, or genre fusion, which successfully married the detective story to the science-fiction genre. On the other hand, Randall Garrett’s Too Many Magicians, a blend of fantasy and mystery, was a boring, sluggish mess with locked room-trick borrowed from Carr.

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      • Hmm, I stared at my bookshelves for a few minutes trying to think of some other examples of genre fusion. Most books that came to mind were really mysteries at the end of the day. For example, Carr had his historical mysteries, but those are really just mysteries set during a different time – granted they have all sorts of interesting trivia.

        The best fusion I could think of is oddly enough Christianna Brand’s Alas for Her That Met Me (published as Mary Ann Ashe). That is a true melding of a historical romance with a mystery. You could make a riveting film out of it, but nobody would classify it as a mystery.

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  2. Can you name a Gilbert novel stronger than Death in Captivity?

    The Killing of Katie Steelstock is supposedly very good and the late Grobius Shortling rated it higher than Death in Captivity on his now defunct website, but I doubt it’s as good as Death in Captivity. Which is a genuine classic and one of the best World War II mysteries ever written.

    Anyway, I’m glad some of Gilbert’s best detective novels are now part of the British Library series and more people get to appreciate his work. And they better appreciate Death in Captivity!

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      • Just let’s make it official. Death in Captivity, a.k.a. The Danger Within, is Michael Gilbert’s masterpiece. There you go! It’s settled. 🙂

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      • I did like TKOKS very much, but even so I readily admit that DIC is better.

        I cannot name a better Gilbert novel than DIC. However, the collection of short stories featuring Mr Calder and Mr Behrens has an extremely good reputation, justifiably so in my opinion. So, that would probably be the main contender if short stories are allowed.

        Like you, I was underwhelmed by Smallbone Deceased and very happily surprised by Death Has Deep Roots.

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      • Having loved Death in Captivity/The Danger Within and been thoroughly underwhelmed by Smallbone Deceased (to the extent that I couldn’t finish it), I’m pleased Death Has Deep Roots bodes better in your opinion, Christophe.

        Mind you, I also struggled with Close Quarters, so it’s possible Gilbert and I just don’t see eye-to-eye.

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      • Wait, I didn’t like something and so you avoided it? But, like, our tastes divege so wildly — you’ll probably love it. Can’t have you using me as a weather vane, Kate; good grief, no; your acuity is far greater than mine, I insist you read Close Quarters immediately!

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  3. I must put in a strong disagreement about Smallbone Deceased and (to a lesser extent) Close Quarters. Am I really in a minority in my liking for these, as I seem to be about Michael Innes’ Lament for a Maker?

    More constructively, could I put in a vote for Blood and Judgement? It’s a pity this was the only full-length book about Patrick Petrella.

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    • Oh no Jonathan, I think the people who don’t like SD so much are the ones in the minority. I’ve read Blood and Judgement either last year or the year before and remember enjoying it quite well.

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    • I intend to read “Smallbone Deceased” again some time. It is highly appreciated by so many experienced readers and I enjoy Gilbert’s elegant style and dry wit so much, that I hope that my first experience with the book was just a fluke of some sort.

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  4. I like a lot of Gilbert’s short stories, especially the Calder & Behrens ones, but my absolute favorite anything by him is the story “Petrella’s Holiday,” in the collection The Man Who Hated Banks. Look this one up if you can.

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