Few British crime writers have been lauded as extensively on both sides of the Atlantic as Michael Gilbert, who died in February at the age of 93. The Mystery Writers of America recognized his contribution to the genre with its highest honour, the Grand Master Award. The Crime Writers Association did likewise when he received the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger. The Queen appointed him a Commander of the British Empire in 1980 and his books – fact as well as fiction – stage plays, television scripts and radio plays have earned an admiring audience since his first novel, Close Quarters, appeared in 1947. Two of his other novels were adapted into films. Yet his was never a household name. This was not due to any lack of talent, but simply because he belonged to a generation and a class of Englishmen that regarded the seeking of personal publicity as unseemly. He preferred to let his work speak for itself. And how well it spoke of his gifts for writing clear and attractive prose and for composing intricate and delightful story-lines.
Michael Gilbert was born in 1912, the same year as the legendary crime critic and novelist Julian Symons, who became a good friend from the time when, in 1953, they were asked by John Creasey to help found the Crime Writers Association. Educated at Blundell’s, a well-known private school, and London University, Gilbert had a short spell as a schoolteacher before the Second World War intervened. By then his enthusiasm for detective fiction had prompted him to start work on Close Quarters. Conceived in the spirit of Golden Age mystery writing, and still an agreeable read today, this whodunit was set in a fictitious Cathedral close. Before he managed to finish the book, he had served in the Royal Horse Artillery, been mentioned in dispatches and become a prisoner of war. His experiences in an Italian POW camp provided him with background material for Death in Captivity, a first-rate whodunit. By the time that book appeared in 1952, Gilbert had already published five others and found time to qualify as a solicitor.
Gilbert seems to have had an extraordinary ability to succeed rapidly at anything he took seriously enough to turn his mind to. He did not merely dabble in legal work whilst trying to build a career as a novelist; he rose to become second most senior partner in a prestigious firm and numbered amongst his clients not only the Conservative Party and the Sultan of Bahrain – but also Raymond Chandler. His legal knowledge informed many of his novels – including the witty and ingenious Smallbone Deceased, which many regard as his masterpiece – and short stories. Cyril Hare, a barrister who became a judge and who also wrote crime fiction, was an influence – Gilbert came across Hare’s classic mystery Tragedy at Law whilst imprisoned in Italy. The men later became good friends and, after Hare’s early death, Gilbert edited a first class collection, Best Detective Stories of Cyril Hare. Hare was an excellent writer whose reputation has stood the test of time. But Gilbert’s range – even in his books focusing on legal themes, a small proportion of his total output - was much wider.
Death has Deep Roots cleverly combines a courtroom drama with a thriller set largely in France. Flashpoint, narrated in part by a lawyer who works for the Law Society (the body which regulates the conduct of solicitors), involves political intrigue and dirty tricks played by the security services. The Crack in the Teacup finds a young lawyer running up against corruption in local government. The Queen against Karl Mullen, an outstanding and astonishingly overlooked late work, treats with great skill tricky questions about the fallibility of British justice. The themes are serious, yet invariably Gilbert wrote with a light touch. If he wished to convey a message, he did so with the utmost subtlety. Perhaps that is why the sharp-eyed social commentary in several of his books has so often been under-estimated. Legal issues and settings surface in many of the hundreds of short stories that he turned out over more than half a century. Stay of Execution includes several minor masterpieces, not least the short-short ‘Back on the Shelf’. Anything for a Quiet Life brings together nine stories about Jonas Pickett, a solicitor who leave London for a quiet Sussex resort but finds himself repeatedly confronted by mysteries that demand to be solved.
Jonas Pickett had earlier appeared in The Long Journey Home, another book which makes good use of Gilbert’s war-time experiences, and it is a feature of this author’s work that he regularly created fresh and engaging characters who kept popping up in novels and short stories, without achieving dominance. His first series detective was Chief Inspector Hazlerigg, of whom he said (in introducing the Crippen & Landru collection, The Man who Hated Banks): ‘He was what you might call a standard pattern policeman.’ Soon he introduced Sergeant Patrick Petrella, son of an Englishwoman and a senior Spanish detective. Petrella’s first book appearance was in Blood and Judgment, a police procedural which opens with the discovery of a woman’s body on Bonfire Night. Although Hazlerigg investigated in Smallbone Deceased, the book also saw the debut of an appealing amateur sleuth, the lawyer Henry Bohun. As Gilbert said: ‘Bohun’s detective activities arose by chance. Since he suffered from a form of parainsomnia which never allowed him more than two hours’ sleep each night, and sometimes none at all, this left him with a lot of time on his hands which he spent…thinking out answers to the problems that he encountered.’ Bohun appeared in no other novels, but five of the short stories about him may be found in The Man who Hated Banks. The book also includes three tales about former DCI Mercer, whose first outing was in The Body of a Girl. Mercer is an unscrupulous man and, although I presume that Gilbert’s political instincts were conservative, he was never reluctant to explore the dark and dirty corners of establishment life in his writing. There are corrupt cops as well as honourable ones, together with innumerable dodgy politicians. In his espionage stories, especially the highly praised series concerning he veteran agents Calder and Behrens, he does not flinch from the reality that spying is a brutal business.
Gilbert somehow found time, mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, to write for stage, radio and TV, as well as to co-edit the first four CWA short story anthologies and to edit an excellent series of ‘Classics of Detection and Adventure’ for Hodder & Stoughton. His non-fiction is always worth seeking out and it is a matter for regret that he did not write more regularly about his chosen genre. Had he done so, one suspects that his reputation as an incisive, if traditionally-inclined, commentator might have rivalled that of Symons. He contributed a chapter to a book edited by H.R.F. Keating (who wrote an affectionate and perceptive obituary of Gilbert for ‘The Guardian’ newspaper) about Agatha Christie, but perhaps his most original and fascinating essay is to be found in a book he edited himself, Crime in Good Company, a gathering of pieces on criminal and crime-writing put out under the auspices of the CWA.
In ‘The Moment of Violence’, Gilbert argues that ‘a thriller is more difficult to write than a detective story’. (He, of course, was skilled at both forms.) He went on to claim that ‘because thrillers are more difficult, they are, on the whole, written by professionals. Detective stories of the greatest excellence are produced by school-mistresses, dons, County Court judges, poets, lawyers, Army Commanders, chemists, critics and other members of those underpaid professional classes who have to use their spare time productively or starve.’ Note, incidentally, how a telling point is wrapped up with dry humour. This is typical of Gilbert. His essay was written nearly 50 years ago and remains a good read today – not least for his explanation, based on personal experience, of what it sounds like to be shot at when you are running away.
The essay is prefaced by a quote from the master of the impossible crime, John Dickson Carr: ‘Mr Gilbert is an affable soul about seven feet tall in a bowler hat….”I maintain,” he says, carefully, “or have maintained so far a steady balance of production both in books and children…two books to one child…I have maintained this rate of production so far and I mean to go on doing it until my powers fail in one direction or the other.”’ Gilbert adds wryly, ‘Up-to-date figures are ten books and six children, which would seem to give Mrs Gilbert a clear two point lead.’ In fact the Gilberts had seven children in all (one, Harriet, herself became a successful novelist), though Michael Gilbert focused increasingly on producing novels: his final tally reached 30.
One of Michael Gilbert’s unintended achievements was to prompt me to combine qualifying as a solicitor with writing crime fiction. I was much encouraged as a teenager to learn that he did his writing on the train into work, although after I became a lawyer I made the mistake of moving to a house nowhere near a railway station. By then Gilbert had become one of my literary heroes and in 1987, before I had managed to publish a novel, the Law Society commissioned me to interview him for its magazine, the Gazette. He proved to be charm and courtesy itself and I have to this day the letters he wrote to me thanking me for the piece about him: ‘In the old days it would, no doubt, have been condemned as advertising. When I started to write reviewers had to be warned that the most they could say about me was that I was “a practising solicitor” – extended later to “a Lincoln’s Inn solicitor”. Not so now, of course, with firms competing in the advertising line – to the detriment, in the end, of their clients whose bills will be inflated by the cost. As Dorothy Sayers pointed out, in the end advertising is paid for by the customer.’ These are the views of a member of the old school, and I fear that they would get a modern lawyer nowhere (even though there is much truth in what he and Sayers said.) But above all, they are the views of an honourable and modest man. And Gilbert was generous, too. After I achieved publication of my novels about Harry Devlin, a Liverpudlian solicitor much more down-at-heel than any of his own legal sleuths, he was quick to offer praise that meant much more to me than he can ever have realised. When – having taken over the editorship of the CWA anthologies that he, along with Symons and Josephine Bell had inaugurated four decades earlier – I asked permission to reproduce his stories in collections, he was always willing to help; the last time we were in touch was when he agreed to my reprinting a lovely short story called ‘A Case for Gourmets’ in the 2005 CWA anthology, Crime on the Move.
So I owe Michael Gilbert even more than most crime fiction fans. There is so much in his work to savour – he is never dull, he never writes the same book twice. As well as the titles already mentioned, I would highlight two more. The Night of the Twelfth is an excellent police novel, while The Dust and the Heat (also known as Overdrive) is very different from his other whodunits and action-packed thrillers. It combines an unusual plot with an intriguing character study of Oliver Nugent, a successful businessman with a dark secret dating back to the days immediately after the end of the Second World War. And – guess what? - along the way, Gilbert also pokes a great deal of fun at advertising campaigns. He enjoyed writing his mysteries every bit as much as readers who relish intelligent and amusing crime fiction will continue to enjoy devouring them.