Obituary: Michael Underwood

H. R. F. Keating
Monday 07 December 1992 00:02

John Michael Evelyn ('Michael Underwood'), barrister and writer, born at sea Atlantic Ocean 2 June 1916, called to the Bar Gray's Inn 1939, staff Department of Public Prosecutions 1946-76, Assistant Director of Public Prosecutions 1969- 76, CB 1976, died Brighton 28 November 1992.

MICHAEL UNDERWOOD - he would have preferred to be remembered as such rather than by his given name of Michael Evelyn, even though he had had a distinguished legal career, in 1976 retiring early as Assistant Director of Public Prosecutions with a CB - was a writer of crime novels with a distinctly individual, if unobtrusive, flavour. Called to the Bar in 1939, he immediately joined the Army, in which he served till 1946, when he entered the office of the DPP.

Beginning in 1954 with Murder on Trial, he gave us altogether more than 40 books, punctuating one's life at yearly intervals, occasionally twice a year, with three or four hours of solid pleasure. Though by no means attention- grabbing, the books, mostly with legal settings, were always insidiously hard to put down. Latterly his paperbacks bore two words from Dick Francis: 'always dependable'. They are a true verdict.

He worked largely by undramatic means, at first glance a paradox in murder fiction. But his books, never less than firmly of the real world, reflected the fact that homicide in real life is almost always dramatic only at the moment of the death. Thereafter there is the solid plod of police work and after that the sober and intricate processes of the law. It was in describing the latter, both before and after the fact, that he excelled. If he almost always eschewed anything approaching the courtroom pyrotechnics of a Perry Mason, the stories he told lacked nothing of grip.

He took us over the years into judges' chambers - not balking at the fact that some of these austere figures, both male and female, could be self-satisfied and even plain bad-tempered - into the purlieus of courtrooms rather than to the histrionic battlegrounds themselves, and, especially in the later books, into the nicely humdrum office of the solicitor Rosa Epton, a character marked out from the ordinary only by a happy streak of sheer pertinacity, who grew on an ever-increasing body of readers. It is not without significance that her creator's mother was Rosa Underwood.

To these stories, from the first, he brought an unwearying craftsmanship. To say of a book that it is written 'with old-fashioned craftsmanship' might be thought to be praising with a faint damn. But craftsmanship, the getting of every detail exactly right, is something that only the most roaring talents in any form of literature can do without. It gave to the Underwood books an interest that was never failing, and made them by and large grow better with each succeeding title.

Sometimes he was lucky enough to hit on a plot that served him particularly well, such as the wonderfully intriguing situation in Menaces, Menaces (1976) of a demand for money being received when the professional blackmailer it plainly came from was safely in a cell at the Old Bailey, or the logic-defying 'perfect murder' in Hand of Fate (1981), eventually neatly and plausibly accounted for. But he never allowed himself to set out on any voyage without making sure his barque was altogether seaworthy.

Besides his books, he gave considerable service to his fellow crime authors. He was chairman of the Crime Writers Association in 1964-65 and his advice on legal matters was always at the association's disposal. He was elected a member of the Detection Club in 1959 and during the presidency of Dame Agatha Christie he conducted the business of the club in her stead. Each succeeding president was grateful for his advice.

Michael Evelyn never married but over the course of time acquired a very large body of godchildren, both official and unofficial. To them he was always a delightfully genial and generous figure, as he was to all his friends.

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