Petrella at Q, by Michael Gilbert (1977)
This volume is actually a collection of short stories that were published in various outlets, including EQMM, between 1972 and 1977. I certainly haven’t gone back to the original publication; it seems to me off-handedly that these would be difficult to read in a stand-alone version since the linking information is rather scant. I suspect that some editing may have been done to make the book more “novel-like”; I don’t mind that, but purists may want to go back to the originals.
The stories are about Patrick Petrella, the protagonist in five other volumes of short stories and one novel by Gilbert between 1959 and 1977. Petrella is at this point rising through the ranks of the Metropolitan Police (London, UK) on his way to his eventual achievement of Detective Chief Inspectorial rank. At this point in his career he has a wife and young child and is involved in the kind of “everyday peculiar” problems that every large police force must face. Here he deals with small robberies, a missing baby, petty theft, shoplifting, etc. The stories have a great deal of charm and intelligence in the writing; we like Petrella and want him to succeed, and we get to see a kind of police procedural approach to generalized crime in society. He generally does succeed, against sometimes heavy odds, although at one point he nearly derails his own career by misinterpreting the actions of his superiors. In the final story Petrella faces off against a particularly evil criminal known as The Pole and wins, although at great personal cost to his family. He actually resigns but the final moments of the book detail two of his superior officers who think it’s likely they can convince him to withdraw his resignation, and they intend to make the effort. (Given that there are three more volumes in the series, I think it’s safe to say they succeed.)
This volume contains an introduction by Gilbert about Patrick Petrella that is of interest to the student and will make the book easier to get into.
Michael Gilbert is an excellent writer who had the misfortune to be able to work in a number of different styles and backgrounds; as a result, he was difficult for publishers to pigeonhole and he possibly hasn’t had the promotional opportunities available to someone who is writing a long series about one individual. His first mystery, Close Quarters (1947) introduced us to Inspector Hazelrigg, and all the books in this series are exceptional; one, Smallbone Deceased (1950), is generally seen as a classic. Petrella has a similar background of London police work. In the 1990s Gilbert started writing espionage novels both in a couple of series and as stand-alone entries; his stand-alone work is by far the largest portion of his output. Personally I prefer his mysteries to his espionage work but he has adherents in both areas.
This collection of short stories is definitely a worthwhile addition to the body of work of the police procedural. Some cases for Petrella involve crimes that are petty; some are very serious. Once or twice there is humour, notably in the story about overcharging for car repairs, and one story about a group of young petty criminals has such a sad ending that it stuck with me for days. There’s one story about a clergyman working in a very poor area of London which is remarkably perceptive and unflinching in its approach to how ministers serve their flocks and the resources upon which they draw to do so (and you will probably be smiling at the end). The final story as I mentioned is quite exciting and violent and would make a great film, I think.
If you enjoy the British take on the police procedural and want a volume of uniformly good short stories to while away some moments, I recommend this and its companion volumes. And if you want Gilbert’s best books, I endorse the selection of Smallbone Deceased but I’ll also mention a great favourite of mine, the unusual Death in Captivity (1952), a classic puzzle mystery that takes place among Allied soldiers in a prisoner of war camp. And his first book, Close Quarters, is so Golden Age that it even has a cryptic crossword to solve as part of the volume.
My favourite edition
I don’t think there are any exceptionally beautiful editions of this book; the muddy blues and greens and 1970s typography of the first edition are not especially well conceived. (It’s depicted above.) My own copy is from the Perennial British Mystery series, shown here, a paperback imprint of Harper and Row and has a vaguely surrealistic flavour about it because of the human face where the Thames should be.
As of today’s date on Abebooks, there’s an inscribed first edition for about US$100 plus shipping; I’d be interested in owning that if I was a Gilbert completist. But my reading copy will do me just fine.