A brief look at Michael Gilbert

Michael Gilbert (young)

Michael Gilbert in his younger days

As I mentioned the other day, I have acquired enough Michael Gilbert novels in the last while to devote an entire post to them en masse. Lately I picked up an armful of paperbacks, and I went out and supplanted that with e-books as my fancy took me. As you will soon see, when I want to read an author, I want them ALL.  I’m still waiting on a few, but I’m determined to read everything of his, it’s all that good. And I had at least one discovery of a great novel that I hadn’t read before.

There’s an excellent tribute to and biography of Gilbert here, by Martin Edwards, who took over editing the CWA anthologies from him and obviously feels the same way about this writer as I do — a brilliant man whose death in 2006 cost the world a great writer of the old school. You’ll find a full bibliography here.

707228I’ve already had quite a bit to say about a couple of his books: The Crack in the Teacup (1966), Petrella at Q (1977), and his first mystery, Close Quarters from 1947. I think it’s clear that this discussion will be coloured by the fact that, just in general, I really like Gilbert’s writing style and I’d overlook a lot of minor flaws because he tells stories that I enjoy reading. So if you’re looking for any vitriol about this particular author, you’re not likely to hear it from me. He’s an excellent writer and I recommend you read your way through him start to finish. As a stylist, he writes the elegant prose of a lawyer, which he was; I understand he used to write his fiction on the train as he traveled to and from London to his office.

close-quartersThere are at least three different types of story that Gilbert writes; the trouble is, it’s not easy to boil them down into categories with succinct and tidy labels, at least for me. As well, Gilbert didn’t usually write long series of books; the most in a series is six. He’s one of the few writers who attracts my attention with a volume of short stories. It’s kind of a peculiarity of mine —  I’m just not all that interested in other authors’ short stories because usually they’re written to make or illustrate a single point, and once I get it, there’s no more flavour. But Gilbert writes volumes of linked stories and they seem to carry a full-length narrative for me. Anyway, he has a few series, lots of non-series novels, and volumes of short stories. To quote Martin Edwards, “He is never dull, he never writes the same book twice.” The story types are anything but rigid; it’s more like he has a couple of preoccupations that show up in many of his novels (the law, for instance, and struggling against injustice) and then he’s wonderfully inventive and inter-relative about the rest.

51KZf83GNSLSo think of these as loose ways to organize Gilbert’s work. As I’ve said, there are preoccupations — the law, justice, courtroom drama, triumph of the little man — and a few types. The three main types I’ve noticed are:

  • Straightforward puzzle mysteries, often with Inspector Hazelrigg but there’s a lot of standalone novels that hearken back to the Golden Age. There’s also a strong thread of courtroom drama in many of his later works but it’s not restricted to this type.
  • One man fighting against great odds. As I said, it’s not easy to describe these, but The Crack in the Teacup is a good example. Sometimes the protagonist is damaged by an powerful antagonist and spends the book getting his own back; sometimes the protagonist sees injustice and merely wants to see justice triumph. Although there is definitely a case for calling the stories about Inspector Petrella police procedurals, I ended up thinking of them in this category because Petrella is constantly battling against both criminals and the police apparatus. There’s also a bunch of stories in this category that have a background of inter-corporate warfare.
  • Political and/or spy thrillers. I tend not to read this style of book as a rule but Gilbert is such a good writer he can carry me along; he understands politics and even his most rollicking adventure stories, like The 92nd Tiger, have underlying truths in them.

So here’s a bunch of little snippets of opinion about the great number of these I’ve read lately, in no particular order. I’ll try and identify the type.

9418707._UY200_Flash Point (1974). Against great odds. The one veers into the political thriller territory but really is the story of a pugnacious little guy who decides to hold a union official to account for a few hundred pounds and ends up bringing down the British government. Part courtroom thriller, part political thriller, and just a good story with a nice twist at the end.

 

 

 

death-of-a-favourite-girlDeath of a Favourite Girl (1980). Puzzle mystery. Also published as The Killing of Katie Steelstock. A fairly traditional puzzle mystery about the brutal killing of a young TV star who is visiting her home village. Part police procedural, part courtroom thriller, and with some very modern undercurrents that must have been quite risqué for 1980. With a surprising but exquisitely foreshadowed twist ending.

 

 

26183691The Doors Open (1949). Against great odds. Although this one has many of Gilbert’s recurring themes (part courtroom drama, part corporate thriller, part political thriller); essentially the story of an evil person who seeks a long, long revenge and is ultimately thwarted by a good man who wants to see justice done. A very satisfying ending.

 

 

smallboneSmallbone Deceased (1950). Puzzle mystery. Often said to be Gilbert’s finest achievement; certainly it’s got everything you could want in a puzzle mystery. Inspector Hazelrigg investigates the case of a body found in a deed box in a staid and old-fashioned solicitor’s office. You understand the people, you are taught the routines of the daily grind of a solicitor’s office in a painless and intelligent way, and there’s a legal trick that you won’t see coming that underlies a major plot thread. I suspect the ending will surprise you very much; it’s logical but difficult to get to unaided.

squareThey Never Looked Inside (1948). Also published as He Didn’t Mind DangerPart detective story, part against great odds. Major McCann decides to help out Inspector Hazelrigg in the problem of ex-servicemen who are being recruited to commit crimes, and thereby runs up against a huge and vicious criminal organization.

1807483Death Has Deep Roots (1951). Puzzle mystery with a strong thread of courtroom drama. It’s the story of Victoria Lamartine, who was in France during WW2 and became pregnant; her handsome young Lieutenant Wells gets killed by the Germans. Vicky is also taken prisoner and her child disappears. She thinks the Lieutenant’s superior officer, Major Thoseby, might know what happened and spends years trying to find him after the war; she does, and he is murdered. The book details the courtroom process of her solicitors trying to defend her against that prosecution.  I think this is an exceptional book and well worth your time if you like courtroom drama.

9418548Fear To Tread (1953). Against great odds. This is the final Inspector Hazelrigg story but really it’s an “against great odds” story; Mr. Wetherall, headmaster of a boys’ secondary school, uncovers a large-scale black market operation and volunteers to assist the police in breaking it up. Mr. Wetherall is a delightful character and the twist in the ending is very satisfying.

 

 

15129384The Body of a Girl (1972). Puzzle mystery with overtones of the police procedural. Detective Chief Inspector Mercer is a hard man who comes to Stoneferry upon his promotion to DCI and leads the investigation of a corpse found in a well-known lovers’ lane. He also solves a couple of other crimes, some of which will surprise the reader. Mercer is a fascinating protagonist who has more to his character than is immediately obvious; a very satisfying ending.

 

10985075Blood and Judgment (1959). Puzzle mystery. Inspector Petrella, in a full-length outing for once, investigates crimes for which one Boot Howton, a habitual criminal, is on trial. Petrella angers his superiors by coming up with an entirely unexpected line of inquiry into certain of the crimes and an entirely unsuspected criminal.

 

 

 

17345812After the Fine Weather (1963). Political thriller. I’m not fond of this style of story and yet couldn’t stop reading this one; a young woman finds herself in danger because she is the only eyewitness to a secret about a political assassination in the Tyrol. Full of double and triple crosses and harsh political realities, a fast-moving story with plenty of excitement.

 

 

danger-withinDeath in Captivity (1952). Also published as The Danger WithinPuzzle mystery. One of my favourite of all Gilbert’s novels, this is the story of a murder among Allied prisoners in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp in WW2. I don’t remember ever reading anything that seemed to be so accurate about the details of everyday life in a prison camp, while still providing fascinating material about who might kill a prisoner and why. My only quibble with this book is that the final sixth of the book has quite a different tone and approach than the rest of the book, and I found it somewhat jarring. The solution, though, is excellent. You’ll note from the Pan tie-in edition I’ve chosen to illustrate this that it was made into a film … which I haven’t yet found.

51qo77AYM4L._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_Paint, Gold & Blood (1989). Against great odds. I didn’t find the story of art smuggling all that fascinating, but there’s a wonderful process whereby two schoolboys get their revenge upon a cruel schoolmaster/churchman that is delightful, and there’s a business idea that’s probably worth doing to this day. The portrait of the brilliant young man who invents the idea is the centrepiece of the book; it’s a bit like Young Sherlock and Young Watson. There’s also a use of Samuel Pepys’ personal shorthand as a way of transmitting confidential information; many things to like about this book even if the art smuggling isn’t of much interest.

1721464Sky High (1955).  Also published as The Country-House Burglar. Puzzle mystery. This is a story that John Rhode would have tackled but didn’t have the writing skill to bring to life; essentially a howdunit about a mysterious ex-Army type in a small village whose house explodes one summer night. It’s the characterization and dialogue that make this story the enjoyable book it is. I found the final chapter delightful; it ties off some loose ends in a very happy ending indeed.

 

stay-of-execution-8Stay of Execution and Other Stories of Legal Practice (1971). This is a set of short stories all of which are linked by the practice of law; some courtroom drama, some less than perfect lawyers, et cetera. Only a few of these are simple stories done to illustrate a point; more often than not they are complicated tales that lead you in one direction and then take you to a startling realization in a very satisfying way. Gilbert was, of course, a lawyer in active practice. Some of these stories will only really be satisfying to people who work in that profession, but they will be very satisfied indeed.

51+y2qobEfL.SX316.SY316The 92nd Tiger (1973). Political thriller. As I noted above, I’m an unlikely customer for this sort of novel but found it engaging and very readable. It’s the story of Hugo Greest, a TV actor who is the lead in a series about The Tiger, a karate-chopping womanizing spy. Just as his series comes to its end, Greest is offered a job by the leader of a small Persian Gulf country recently enriched by the discovery of a rare mineral; he is to equip and train a small army for the Ruler. Since he actually speaks Arabic this is not outrageously unreasonable. There’s a plot to supplant the Ruler and Greest, against great odds, stops the coup, rescues the Heir, and gets the girl. Not a shred of reality here, more like an extremely good-humoured James Bond novel or a very hard-hitting Dick Francis novel, but funny and gruesome by turns, and it held my attention.

2857137The Empty House (1979). Political thriller and against great odds. Young Peter Manciple is an inexperienced insurance adjuster assigned to investigate the death of a policy-holder whose car went over a cliff. This turns out to be merely the tip of the iceberg and lead to a plot involving international intrigue, romance, and biological warfare. It’s certainly an interesting story but I found the ending not quite up to Gilbert’s usual desire to leave the reader happy and satisfied; this is a little depressing and squalid.

 

7089.jpgThe Final Throw (1982). Also published as End-GameAgainst great odds. A young and rather dissolute Welshman goes undercover as a fairly incompetent tour guide around Europe in order to expose drug trafficking and organized crime. The stakes become very high when he must locate a down-and-out drug addicted vagrant who has some incriminating documents.

 

 

md22849633937The Etruscan Net (1960). Puzzle mystery with a little bit of everything. Robert Broke is an Englishman in Florence running a small gallery. After touching on a potential case of forgery of Etruscan antiques, he finds himself up against the local Mafia and a ring of spies, and is soon on trial for manslaughter. A brilliant Italian defence lawyer solves the case and ties off all the loose ends. The Florentine background is interesting and it’s clear that Gilbert had some experience there.

 

511jGyH9bPL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The Night of the Twelfth (1976). Puzzle mystery and one of the most frightening books I’ve ever read — it’s about a serial killer who tortures, rapes, and murders young boys. The main part of the book takes place in the milieu of Trenchard House School, a boys’ school; a few senior boys and junior masters are the principal characters. Gilbert ably threads the difficulties of a very serious underlying plot and lifts the boys’ characters far, far above the Boys’ Own Paper level, helped by one who is the son of the Israeli ambassador and is accustomed to violence. A surprisingly intelligent book with a horrifying ending that had me on the edge of my chair.

51k-s5u8ttL.SX160.SY160Ring of Terror (1995). Political thriller and much more. I wanted to end this on a high note; before this year I hadn’t read any of the three novels in a series about Luke Pagan and Joe Narrabone, and so I only obtained the first one, Ring of Terror. It’s my best discovery of any of this bunch, almost all of which I had read before — just a great novel. It’s a historical novel set in 1913 about young Luke Pagan whose knowledge of Russian makes him extremely valuable to the Metropolitan Police (and to the Home Secretary, one Winston Churchill). Pagan is set to investigate Russian immigrants; some anarchists, some merely criminals, and some entirely innocent — the stakes are very, very high and the story is exciting. I thought as I was midway through the book that this is the type of story that Gilbert was born to write. His command of the period is sufficient to convince me he’s done his research; we know the outlines of the politics involved but, like Churchill’s role, there will be much here that is new to the reader. Gilbert was not afraid to talk about the nasty, violent, and squalid as part of where he had to go with this book, and it’s a rather brutal reality for the protagonist, but it made for a fine and exciting story. Plot, characterization, and writing are all excellent. If I’d ever done a “Top 10 Michael Gilbert novels” list I would have had to revise it all downwards after finding this gem.

Michael Gilbert (later years)

Michael Gilbert in later years

To my surprise there are still a bunch more, but I think I can mop up in a smaller post some time soon. I hope you try Ring of Terror on my recommendation, if you want the male version of Anne Perry with great writing skills, and if you like novels about a protagonist fighting against great odds, that’s Gilbert’s specialty and there are a bunch of titles here for you.

One final note: I wanted to mention that although it is my usual practice to show you the book from which I wrote the piece, that is not the case here. There are so many interesting editions of Michael Gilbert that I wanted to show you a few of the more interesting ones, but they are pictures I scavenged from the internet.

 

 

 

 

Close Quarters, by Michael Gilbert (1947)

close-quartersThis volume has come to mind a couple of times recently, mostly because I did a post on a clerical mystery and it came up in the comments. Then I found my 1952 Hodder & Stoughton 2′ edition (paper-bound, about the size of a digest magazine like EQMM, with an illustration by Jarvis of a shocked clergyman. I’ve shown it here) and thought I’d show off my nice copy and reaffirm my approval of this excellent debut novel by Michael Gilbert. Please pardon my terrible photography but I wanted to show you this funky old edition and couldn’t find an instance on the internet I could scoop to show you.

This was first published in 1947 but has the flavour of an earlier time, to be sure. This is an old-fashioned mystery indeed, what with its numerous plans of the geography of a clerical Close — like a gated community surrounding a cathedral that houses all the attendant clerics and hangers-on. And there is an actual cryptic crossword contained within the pages, that must be solved to reveal a clue. This might be one of the last works of detective fiction to contain a geographic plan without any hint of irony whatever; a delightful hearkening back to the Golden Age.

WARNING: This essay concerns a work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this novel, although the solution to the crime and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What is this book about?

51r3ucwctol-_ac_us160_In the first chapter, the Dean of Melchester Cathedral is lying awake worrying. His sleepless night allows him to painlessly introduce us to both the Close itself and its cast of inhabitants, and a few of their ongoing problems. Someone is persecuting Appledown, the head verger, with some vicious anonymous letters. And the other morning someone put an overlay on the flag raised in the morning saying “Boozey old Appledown”, to the great amusement of the choirboys charged with flag duty. And then there’s the recent accidental death of Canon Whyte, who fell more than a hundred feet from a high tower. The Dean has to balance everyone’s schedules to cover absences and holidays, and is having a troublesome time doing so. The widow of the late Canon Judd refuses to leave the home to which she is no longer entitled. The Dean’s sleepless night is fully occupied with troubles.

It’s when someone paints a rude message in letters two feet high slandering Appledown once again that the Dean feels he must take a hand. He pulls a few discreet strings at the higher levels of Scotland Yard and has his own nephew, Sergeant Pollock, a budding young C.I.D. officer, come for a visit whose unofficial and hush-hush purpose is to investigate the anonymous letters.

51h1sobzqel-_ac_ul320_sr240320_Pollock, a thoroughly nice and respectful young man, soon identifies that the Cathedral’s Close is what we would know as a “closed circle”; because of the geography, it’s possible to  say with certainty that the blackening of Appledown’s name has been undertaken by someone who lives within the Close. Very shortly thereafter, a body is found, and Pollock’s investigation steps up its intensity with the addition of his superior from Scotland Yard, Chief Inspector Hazlerigg, who leads the remainder of the investigation.

Among helps and hindrances, the unspeakable Mrs. Judd sees fit to keep track of the daily lives of her neighbours with the aid of a telescope, and while her eyesight is not what it could be, she still provides valuable information. The lives of all the Close’s inhabitants are gone into, in detail, and reveal various surprises; some unsavoury, some amusing. A mysterious crossword puzzle discovered among the effects of the late Canon Whyte provides a clue to the location of some vital documents. There is another death, and this one is a little more brutal and unpleasant than most of the Golden Age; the stakes become much higher. Various more facts come quickly to light, and finally Inspector Hazlerigg makes an arrest and explains everything to the fascinated Dean in the final chapter.

Why is this book worth your time?

1807452It occurred to me as I was thinking about this book that the best way of describing its position in the broader sweep is as the perfect homage — and farewell — to the Golden Age. Although this book was published in 1947, we do not find out until the last three lines of the book that its date was the “summer of 1937”. To wit:

“Pollock tiptoed out. He felt an overmastering desire for a steak — done red — and a pint of milk stout. Since it was the summer of 1937 he got both without difficulty.”

Parenthetically, that says a lot, doesn’t it? My sense is that in 1947 one could get neither because food rationing was still firmly in place.

I have no idea what Michael Gilbert (1912-2006) was actually thinking when he wrote this, his first novel in a long writing career; to me, he was writing a commercial product that he felt would sell, but one which revealed a great knowledge of the highways and byways of Golden Age mystery plotting and a great affection for the genre. What he accomplished was to create a series character in Inspector Hazlerigg who lasted at least six novels, until 1953, and who was the lead detective in the well-known classic Smallbone Deceased (#4, in 1950).

6426This is a love song to Golden Age mysteries gone by, what with the lovingly detailed maps, an actual crossword puzzle, and the determination early on that the Close is, well, closed. Gilbert was signaling here that, yes, he loved this old form and would proceed to write a bunch more Golden Age mysteries (including a brilliantly clever book about a murder in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp, 1952’s Death in Captivity). So it was a vain effort, in a way, since the true Golden Age mystery was on its deathbed in the 1950s. But we got six excellent mysteries out of his homage.

105297717_amazoncom-close-quarters-9780600200819-michael-gilbertGilbert’s career changed direction in 1959 with the publication of Blood and Judgment, (a novel; see the comments below) about Inspector Petrella of Scotland Yard. I briefly discussed another volume in this series here. This series were still puzzle stories, after a fashion, but at this point Gilbert had successfully embraced the best intentions of the kitchen-sink school and/or a kind of social realism. Petrella’s streets were dirtier and grittier than Hazlerigg’s by a long shot. Later Gilbert moved into the area of the spy novel (or rather the intelligence agent novel) with the creation of the elderly Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens, among other characters; he wrote a lot of non-series novels and short stories.

One tiny little genre that he returned to again and again was the small field of the “men’s adventure novel” — think Nick Carter, Killmaster, and a kind of muscular and aggressive novel where things blow up and the strong-jawed hero gets the girl. Yes, Gilbert wrote those novels, but he wrote them omitting most of the explosions and with a healthy dose of reality governing the action; intelligent observation and a sensible approach to human nature are his hallmarks. There are a number of novels of his that can be described as “one lone wolf takes on a corrupt organization”, and I’ve always found him a dependable provider of that particular plotline, much like Dick Francis. 1966’s The Crack in the Teacup is an excellent example.

michael-gilbert-books-and-stories-and-written-works-u4

Michael Gilbert

He even wrote a companion piece to the current volume; 1984’s The Black Seraphim takes place against a similar location and background but has a considerably more modern feeling about it. At this point in his career Gilbert was in full command of his style and could vary it to meet the needs of his chosen subject matter; now he is far beyond the repressed virtues of the Golden Age mystery. The Night of the Twelfth (1976) is a really well done and occasionally horrific novel about a serial killer of young boys; 1980’s Death of a Favourite Girl has a very surprising and sexually frank ending. Gilbert was one of a few authors who maintained his full command of his art up until he retired.

The point of this particular novel, though, is that it’s an absolutely classic Golden Age mystery as the first novel of a writer who went on to write some top-notch novels in a more modern idiom. It’s really, really well done. There is some excellent character work — for instance the horrible Mrs. Judd, who is drawn with a broad brush, but whose unpleasant presence is necessary to the plot. You will truly believe that she spies upon her neighbours with a telescope. The book is full of moments of gentle humour mostly based on observation and character, and about tiny moments in the everyday lives of real people. Oh, and Gilbert wipes the eye of Dorothy L. Sayers in at least one respect. Sayers’s representation of how people solve cryptograms and such puzzles (in The Nine Tailors,  Have His Carcase, and a boring short story), is painful and mawkish; it’s like a solution guide being mouthed by cardboard puppets. Michael Gilbert, on the other hand, can have you overhearing two people who are working together to solve a cryptic crossword and having fun doing it, and at the same time, for American readers and non-cruciverbalists in general, explaining the principles gently and easily without making a big deal of it.

The solution to the mystery is difficult but not absolutely impossible for the reader; always a pleasant experience to be fooled on some but not all of the answer. You will be diverted by the high quality of the writing and amused by the economical but effective characterization. You will also have the pleasure of having a first-hand description of some recondite practices and habits of the clerical inhabitants of a tiny closed community, from the point of view of a keen-eyed observer with a great sense of humour. I recommend you start here and read your way through the entirety of Mr. Gilbert’s work; through re-encountering this great novel, I think I’ll have another read through his oeuvre myself!