Michael Gilbert

Cross-genre detective novelist


Michael Francis Gilbert, novelist, dramatist and lawyer: born Billinghay, Lincolnshire 17 July 1912; partner, Trower, Still and Keeling 1952-83; CBE 1980; FRSL 1999; married 1947 Roberta Marsden (two sons, five daughters); died Luddesdown, Kent 8 February 2006.

In 1947, the publishers Hodder & Stoughton - at the time not renowned for puffing their first-time authors (as Eric Ambler had very quickly discovered a decade earlier) - issued a detective novel called Close Quarters to something like a fanfare. On the dust-jacket and to the trade they announced "a new and coming name in Crime Fiction. Watch his career. With Close Quarters you are in on the beginning."

This, for a publisher, was an unusually perceptive judgement. Michael Gilbert, their tiro author, garnered not only critical but reader praise from the start, and became, in a writing career that lasted nearly 60 years (his last book, The Curious Conspiracy, a volume of short stories, was published in his 90th year), one of a handful of British crime writers who were acclaimed and respected on both sides of the Atlantic.

Born in 1912, Gilbert was educated at Blundell's School and gained an external LLB (Hons) from London University while teaching at the Cathedral School in Salisbury, a locale he was to return to again and again in his books, though on each occasion suitably disguised. His father was the Lincolnshire poet and novelist Bernard Gilbert; his mother, under her maiden name, Anne Cuthbert, a successful magazine journalist. In 1937, prompted perhaps by these familial influences, though certainly by his own enjoyment of mystery and detective fiction - "Most people," he wrote later, "start by writing books . . . they like reading themselves" - Michael Gilbert embarked on Close Quarters while studying for his law degree; the book was left unfinished due to the outbreak of hostilities in 1939.

Gilbert had an eventful war. Captured by the Germans in North Africa, he was transferred to Italy where he jumped from a POW train with a friend, Lt Tony Davies; both were later recaptured and moved to an officers' camp in the Po valley. When the Italians turned on Mussolini and announced an armistice - after the Allied landings and before the Germans took over - the POW camps were thrown open and Gilbert, Davies and another friend, Capt Toby Graham, took off south, tramping the 500-odd miles down the spine of Italy until they reached the Allied lines. Gilbert later took part in the battle for Monte Cassino and was mentioned in despatches.

Davies's account of the gruelling southwards trek appeared in his war memoir When the Moon Rises (1973); Gilbert sensibly saved the experiences for his fiction, utilising the POW-camp milieu and the subsequent "long walk" in Death in Captivity (1952, later filmed), changing the locale but not the spirit of the escapade for After the Fine Weather (1963, the Austrian Tyrol), and then, over 20 years later, triumphantly returning to the original scene in The Long Journey Home (1985), the riveting tale of a man on the run from the Mafia.

He was a natural storyteller with an enviable grasp of characterisation, a dry wit and a flair for speakable dialogue (he effortlessly turned out plays and serials for both radio and television). He also had a devious imagination - in much the same way that an early hero of his, Edgar Wallace's celebrated semi-official sleuth J.G. Reeder, had a "criminal mind" - capable of dreaming up the most ingenious and labyrinthine plots, often with a distinctly amoral tinge to them.

Gilbert had a fondness for amusing but unscrupulous pirates - Oliver Nugent in The Dust and the Heat (1969) is perhaps the epitome, though Gilbert's fiction is alive with the breed - and an entirely practical, indeed sceptical, view of the workings of the law. It was typical of his humour that the two stories in his excellent collection Stay of Execution (1971) in which rascally solicitors "get away with it", "Back on the Shelf" and "Mr Portway's Practice", were written in the first person.

Though he was influenced by (among others) such disparate authors as Wallace, Dornford Yates, his friend "Cyril Hare" (Judge Alfred Gordon Clark) and Dashiell Hammett, perhaps Gilbert's primary mentor was not a writer at all but his fellow lawyer W.C. Crocker, the legal nemesis who in the early 1930s had pursued the extraordinary Leopold Harris, arsonist on the epic scale, in an undercover operation which had all the attributes of a military campaign. Crocker's approach to the Harris problem and subsequent success clearly delighted the younger solicitor and simulacrums of Crocker, in one guise or another, appear in most of his novels and scores of his short stories.

Ironically, in real life also, Crocker later filled the role of "villain as least likely suspect", in that, although deputy director of MI5 during the early days of the Second World War, he was also a Nazi sympathiser and active Mosleyite, about whom Sir David Petrie, conducting a governmental inquiry into the shambles that was MI5 in 1940, wrote, "the evil this man did lives after him". To no one's surprise (probably least of all Gilbert's), Crocker later became President of the Law Society, and was knighted.

Another early but lasting influence was the Ealing comedies of the 1940s, particularly Passport to Pimlico, in which salt-of-the-earth types cock a snook at pettifogging bureaucracy, and Hue and Cry, with its memorable finale of view-halloaing slum-kids rampaging through London's bomb-torn East End in hot pursuit of the villains. Revenges upon jobsworths and interfering jacks-in- office were an attractive feature of Gilbert's novels, and his fictional children, both male and female, were never less than engagingly down-to-earth, at times positively - and credibly - Machiavellian (Gilbert himself had some experience of children at first hand: he sired seven, including the novelist and critic Harriett Gilbert and the Independent journalist Gerard Gilbert).

Some critics - who either skimmed him or lazily relied on often inadequate dust-jacket blurbs - placed him firmly in the pigeonhole labelled "Cozies", an American reviewers' tag for thumpingly English detective novels by thumpingly English detective novelists set against thumpingly English backgrounds. To be sure, his settings were quite often cathedral cities, boys' private schools, rural or suburban backwaters, and he never played less than fair with his readers. Yet always there were darker undercurrents in his work, and ugly reality, in the shape of sadism, sexual corruption, fear, and sudden, shocking violence, was rarely far away - The Night of the Twelfth (1976), with its disturbing echoes of the Moors Murders, was surely his masterpiece in that respect.

Even "detective novelist" is a miscategorisation. Gilbert had mastered almost the entire range of sub-genres in the mystery field at a very early stage in his career: one of his most intelligent and satisfying pure-detective novels, Smallbone Deceased, with its sharply observed characters and Lincoln's Inn setting, its pawky humour, and its skilful clueing, was published as early as 1950.

Yet he was equally at home with spy stories (his tales of "Mr Calder and Mr Behrens" are rightly judged to be some of the finest in the genre), police procedurals and the thriller - a genre he considered far more taxing than the detective story - and soon showed himself adept at the cross-genre novel: Death Has Deep Roots (1951) is part courtroom drama, part investigative thriller, the one storyline interwoven with the other yet both having their own quite separate and distinct atmosphere and tensions. He wrote several hundred short stories (a favourite medium) and demonstrated a mastery of the form which few of his peers equalled.

As diverting in his non-fiction as in his fiction, he wrote an excellent and unbiased account of the Crippen case, a splendidly witty study of Arthur Orton, notorious claimant to the Tichborne baronetcy, and in Fraudsters (1986) a brisk and entertaining set of "brief lives" of some of those (including Horatio Bottomley and Ivar Kreuger the "Match King") who would clearly have agreed with the principle once laid down by the impudent Tichborne Claimant himself: "Men with plenty money and no brains were made for men with plenty brains and no money."

Legend has it that for most of his writing career Gilbert's modus operandi was to pen his novels and stories on the up- and down-trains to and from work (he lived in Kent, worked around the Law Courts). For once, legend does not lie: much of his output was so created, his life neatly compartmentalised so that his legal work, his writing and his family life rarely impinged upon each other. Yet his day-job - that of a senior partner in a firm of busy Lincoln's Inn solicitors - was crucial to his creativity, time and again providing him with characters, incidents, backgrounds and, especially, plots.

During the early 1960s he was legal adviser to the government of Bahrain, an experience that surfaced in fictional form 10 years later as The Ninety-Second Tiger (1973), and in novels such as Flash Point (1974) and The Crack in the Teacup (1966) his insider knowledge of the law was enthrallingly deployed. Possibly the only experience he never adequately utilised in his fiction was that of being solicitor to the novelist Raymond Chandler, an often arduous task (Chandler then awash with alcohol and increasingly crotchety).

In his seventies and eighties, Gilbert was still writing gripping, sharply plotted and clever entertainments, but his loyalty to his old publisher was not reciprocated. New brooms at Hodders, especially after the Headline takeover, stopped promoting him, gave his books derisory print-runs, never reprinting. A friendly editor at Robert Hale took over the novels; the small American speciality publisher Crippen & Landru his last couple of short-story collections.

Michael Gilbert was a first division writer (I suspect a first division lawyer too) whose canon contains some of the finest and most readable - and re-readable - novels and stories of the past 60 years.

Jack Adrian

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