This is a little outside my usual time boundaries; I usually prefer to look at Golden Age mysteries until perhaps 1940. But, you know, Michael Gilbert did write a handful of classic mysteries very much in the Golden Age manner — Smallbone Deceased (1950) and Close Quarters (1947) come to mind — and this particular volume, The Crack in the Teacup, did actually get nominated for a Gold Dagger for best novel. I think it’s possible you’ll like this book as much as I have.
Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of crime fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others; I discuss elements of plot and construction although don’t lay out the answers in so many words. If you haven’t already read this novel, reading this essay means it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
What’s this book about?
In the town of Barhaven, an hour outside of London, a young solicitor, Anthony Brydon, comes across two chuckers-out from the local “Pleasuredrome” violently assaulting a teenager. He intervenes and takes on the teenager’s case and thereby learns more than he ever knew about local corruption. Gradually, bit by bit, he begins to uncover a massive conspiracy involving local government, planning authorities, and the money to be made by buying farmland that the local government is about to authorize for building.
As the stakes increase, the action gets murderous and culminates in a series of exciting and explosive events, including the outcome of a hotly-contested local election and the solution to a couple of mysterious deaths that have happened along the way.
Why is this worth your time?
I’ve looked at books by Michael Gilbert before, Close Quarters (1947) and Petrella at Q (1977). But they are different from each other and both are different from this volume; Gilbert had a knack for writing different kinds of stories. Close Quarters is a classic work of Golden Age detection, with maps and a crossword puzzle that must be solved to lead to an important clue. Petrella at Q is part of a much more realistic look at the activities of Patrick Petrella’s rise through the ranks of the Metropolitan Police in a set of police procedural stories.
This book is a standalone piece and Gilbert wrote this same kind of story a number of times. Essentially it’s about an innocent well-meaning man who finds himself in possession of important details about a criminal scheme of some kind. He is unfairly treated and persecuted, frequently physically, and he leads a one-man campaign to bring his enemies to justice. It’s a variation on the “quest” story; recently I talked about the “puzzle adventure” sub-genre and I suspect that this may fall close to that category. Gilbert sets his puzzle adventure, however, not against global conspiracies or religious combatants, but on the small scale of the government of a small town. The action is less explosive and the stakes are smaller but the climaxes are, to me, just as satisfying.
I refreshed my memory of this book the other day and thought that it would most appeal to someone who does certain kinds of work. Gilbert was a well-known lawyer and I think lawyers would like this book; so would anyone who works in government, or for a government agency or a private sector agency, and understands the interaction between government and for-profit enterprises. It’s about the kind of low-level corruption that occasionally enriches people who supply local governments, or benefit from their licensing schemes, and you will grasp the broad strokes even if the details can be a little obscure.
Part of what makes this particular volume enjoyable is that it’s excellently written. There’s a non-mawkish subplot about Anthony Brydon meeting and wooing a smart young woman that is woven delightfully into the story. And there are a couple of characters, notably a local political firebrand, who are excellently portrayed so that we get a clear idea of their limitations as well as their virtues. Most people are neither all good nor all evil, and this gives the book a sense of reality that is more refreshing than other authors’ works of this sort.
The final chapter is a clever little reversal that makes the reader wonder if anything really useful actually happened; what good is it to do the right thing? Again, more philosophy than one expects from a small-scale thriller such as this.
This is a very enjoyable read and there are a few other stand-alone novels about bureaucracy gone sour from this period of Gilbert’s writing that are also entertaining, especially if you are involved in a similar activity in real life. The title apparently comes from a poem by W.H. Auden: “And the crack in the tea-cup opens A lane to the land of the dead.” I think he’s saying that large consequences come from small beginnings.
A note on editions
This is not to my knowledge available in an electronic edition, at least in Canada. ABE only shows one copy as of today, a first edition for about US$60. Amazon, however, would be delighted to sell you a paperback for about CDN$15 and has perhaps 16 copies available. This is definitely a case where I would try my local used bookstore; this book has been in fairly recent mass-market paperback editions in both England and the US (therefore Canada also) and I see various Michael Gilbert titles all the time; Perennial Library did a lot of his titles in the 80s and 90s. Keep your eyes open for a bargain.