Reprint of the Year Awards 2019: Nomination 1

I’m sure you have all been holding your breath since last Saturday, eagerly anticipating today’s reveal for the first round of blogger nominations. Before I share my own nomination, I would firstly like to thank everyone who has already added their own nominations to the Reprint of the Year Award launch post. If you haven’t already there is still time to do so. Secondly, I have also gathered the links to the other blogger nominations posted today, which you can access below:

BevMy Reader’s Block

BradAh Sweet Mystery Blog

John Pretty Sinister

MoiraClothes in Books

Puzzle DoctorIn Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

RekhaBook Decoder

Here is the synopsis for my first nomination…

‘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.’

I think most will have immediately deduced that my nomination is Michael Gilbert’s Death in Captivity (1952), which was printed under the title, The Danger Within in the US. It has seen several reprints including one from the Rue Morgue Press and the British Library, whose reprint took place this year.

So why should Gilbert’s book get your vote?

Reason 1 – It’s Simply the Best

Death in Captivity is commonly regarded as Gilbert’s best book. Robin Winks in 1976, writing for The New Republic wrote that Gilbert ‘has never exceeded The Danger Within’ and returning to the present-day, JJ, writer of The Invisible Event blog, wrote a while ago that this book is ‘charming, gritty, beautifully clear, and full of graceful touches. As yet, nothing else by him has even come close.’ So, if JJ loves it, it’s got to be good. Right?

Devil’s advocates though, may be thinking that, whilst this could be Gilbert’s personal best, that in and of itself does not make Death in Captivity automatically the best in comparison to other mysteries. This is very true, which is why my remaining reasons itemise the qualities which make this story so good…

Reason 2 – Location, Location, Location

A strength of this book, which is often mentioned, is its highly unusual setting, of a WW2 Italian POW camp. Yet what makes it such a good setting, is that Gilbert based it on his own experiences, as in North Africa in 1943, Gilbert was 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. It is these experiences which add human touches to the piece, giving the prose doses of dark humour, of laughter in the face of adversity, as well as bittersweet moments. It is a setting which feels far from artificial. Yet this setting is much more important than its novelty factor, as Gilbert involves it in the mystery plot itself, with details of the crime and its aftermath being specific to the location it takes place in. This death is not a mere inconvenience but is something which could not only scupper current escape plans but have more far reaching life and death consequences.

Reason 3 – The Impossible Crime

No list of reasons for why this book is so good could be complete without a discussion of some kind of the impossible crime Gilbert employs. This harks back to my point of some details of the crime being endemic to the POW camp setting. With such high levels of surveillance from guards and fellow prisoners, it really is baffling how a body could have ended up in the escape tunnel being dug. The hut the tunnel was being dug in was locked from the outside at night and the tunnel’s opening required four men to work. Consequently, these elements really add to the tension felt by the closed set of suspects, as well as generating quite a claustrophobic atmosphere.

Furthermore, if you don’t want to take my word for how good this book is then there is Tomcat, who writes the blog Beneath the Stains of Time. If you have come across his blog, then you will know of his vast expertise in mysteries from the locked room and impossible crime subgenre. Gilbert’s title features on his well-respected list: My Favourite Locked Room Mysteries and in his own review of the work writes that:

‘In my opinion, the explanation for the impossible appearance of a body in a hermetically sealed, air-tight and blocked tunnel is as simplistic and logical as it’s original. A one-of-a-kind impossibility in a completely unique crime novel that performed a perfect juggling act with its detective story elements, thriller components and spy material. Gilbert never allowed one of those elements to overshadow the other, but neither were they diluted. They worked in perfect harmony with one another. For example, the clues that will help you solve the detective story elements are provided by some of the more gruesome, thriller-ish aspects of the plot. You’ll know what I mean when you get to it.’

Couldn’t have put it better myself. Need I say any more?

Reason 4 – Tension

Whilst it is sort of implied in some of my other reasons, I felt this element deserved a section of its own, as tension and suspense are definitely a key part of the reader’s experience and enjoyment of the book. Rekha, who writes the blog Book Decoder, for instance, describes the ending as ‘spine chilling.’ Not only are the prisoners unsure who they can trust, outside events in the war also apply an additional pressure, which could end in their deaths, if they cannot escape in time. But how can they continue with their escape plans, if they are unsure if the Italian guards already know about the tunnel? Therefore, there is an urgency added to solving the suspicious death.

Reason 5 – Fusion of the Writing Styles

My last reason leads nicely on to this one, as I believe it is Gilbert’s successful fusion of thriller and detective fiction components which make this story so effectively suspenseful and intriguing. Mixing different styles together is something many authors have attempted, another example being J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White. Yet, it is not such an easy task to do well, as if the differing elements are imbalanced, then one subgenre’s narrative expectations ride roughshod over the others. Gilbert avoids this and in particular 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 captivating. A good example of this interweaving can be seen in the character, Goyles, who is the character who does the most investigating. Metafictional comments are not overdone and instead Goyle’s sleuthing actions are shown to spring from a natural response to an ever-changing and highly dangerous situation. This is further evidence of how Gilbert prevents the mystery from becoming unpleasantly artificial.

Over to You

Have you read this book? What did you make of it? What qualities do you think make it worthy of winning the much-coveted Reprint of the Year ward?

17 comments

  1. I too found this a stand out book this year. At the time I read it I was reading and reviewing four novels based during WW2 which I enjoyed, but this one certainly stood out as a brilliant mystery and an evocation of o a time and setting which made it leap off the page. This review has made me remember just how much I enjoyed it, so thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great choice, Kate.
    I would add a sixth reason: Elegant writing.
    And the characterization and insights about “mankind” that you briefly touch upon under the label “human touches” in the section “Location, location, location” also set this book apart from many other in the genre.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have to disagree about this being the author’s best. Smallbone Deceased, also republished this year, is excellent. I could not make anything of this one although I shall try it again.

    Like

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