Death In Captivity by Michael Gilbert

A locked tunnel mystery…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1943, and the British officers held in a prisoner-of-war camp in north Italy take their duty to escape seriously, so the camp is riddled with tunnels. The biggest and most hopeful of these is under Hut C, elaborately hidden under a trapdoor that takes several men to open. So when a body turns up in the tunnel the question is not only how did he die but also how did he get into the tunnel? The dead man is Cyriakos Coutoules, a Greek prisoner who was widely unpopular and whom some suspected of having been an informer. When it begins to look as if his death was murder, the camp authorities quickly fix on one of the prisoners as the culprit, but the Brits are sure of his innocence. So it’s up to them to figure out how and why Coutoules died, and who did kill him…

Well, this is a very different take on the classic “locked room” mystery. In fact, to a degree the mystery becomes secondary to the drama of what’s happening in the prison camp as the Allies approach and it looks as though the Italians may surrender. The prisoners doubt this will lead to their release – they anticipate the Italians will hand them over to the Germans before the Allies arrive – so it’s all the more important that they get their plans for escape ready urgently. The Italians meantime, facing almost certain defeat, know that the Allies will be looking to hold people responsible for any war crimes that may have been committed, so they have an incentive to destroy evidence or get rid of witnesses who might be used against them. So tensions are rising all round, and some people are driven to rash actions.

There is a bit of the gung-ho British heroism attitude in the book, unsurprisingly given that it was first published in 1952 when the war was still fresh in people’s minds. But Gilbert actually gives a fairly balanced picture – not all the Brits are heroes and not all the Italians are evil, and the relationships of the prisoners to each other are shown as complex, with everything from close friendships to rivalries and dislikes. As the men begin to suspect that there’s a spy in the camp, suspicion leads to mistrust, and we see how the officers in charge have to deal with that. Gilbert doesn’t pull any punches regarding either the treatment of the prisoners or the dangers associated with their various escape attempts, so the book is hard-hitting at points. But the general camaraderie and patriotism of the prisoners also give the story a kind of good-natured warmth and a fair amount of humour which prevent the tone from becoming too bleak.

The officers in charge delegate the task of investigating the murder to “Cuckoo” Goyles, a young man whose experience of detection is restricted exclusively to having been a fan of mystery novels. He has to try to sift through the little evidence that is available without revealing anything that might alert the Italians to the existence of the tunnel. He uses his knowledge of how the camp works and of some of the weaknesses in security the escape committee has observed while making their plans. And he has to work quickly – the cruel camp commander, Captain Benucci, has a man in custody and no one has any illusions but that he’ll be found guilty.

Michael Gilbert

However, I was far more interested in whether the men would escape safely than in the solution of the murder mystery, in truth. I felt Gilbert’s portrayal avoided the pitfall of being overly dramatic to the point where it crossed the credibility line, but this still left him plenty of room to create genuine tension and suspense. In his introduction, Martin Edwards tells us that Gilbert himself was a prisoner in Italy during the war and had personal experience of both failed and successful escape attempts, which no doubt is why the story feels so authentic. As the Allies draw ever nearer, the book takes on aspects of the action thriller and I found myself reading into the small hours, desperate to know how it would turn out.

This is so unlike the only other Gilbert I’ve read, Smallbone Deceased, but both are equally excellent in entirely different ways. I’m so glad the British Library has brought these books back into print and I now can’t wait to read the third one they’ve republished so far – Death Has Deep Roots. You can count me as a new Michael Gilbert fan, and if you haven’t already guessed, this one is highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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43 thoughts on “Death In Captivity by Michael Gilbert

    • Thank you! 😀 This was so different from the other one of his I’d read – I love when an author tries different things. Poisoned Pen publish them for Kindle in your part of the world, usually a few months after the paperbacks come out over here – and they usually show up on NetGalley! I used to get them there before the BL kindly started sending me paper copies. I warn you – they’re addictive… 😀

  1. I do like Gilbert’s ability to ratchet up the tension without falling into the trap of the implausible or the contrived, FictionFan. And I do like the way the character development sounds in this one. Funnily enough, I don’t usually go for wartime ‘soldier’ stories unless they’re very, very well done. But it sounds as though Gilbert’s skill has made this one an excellent portrayal of the context. I’m glad you thought so highly of it.

    • He really is excellent – another one that I can’t understand why he’s fallen into relative obscurity. I’m not big on war stories either, but because this was set in the prison camp there was no real fighting – it was more like a closed circle mystery in style, in fact. But the escape thing gave it an added element of the thriller and I must admit that was the bit that became most compelling for me in the end…

  2. Oo what an intriguing take on the locked room mystery – I have so many unread BL Crime Classics, and can’t remember if this is one of them, but I hope so!

    • Oh, I hope so too! Although I must say I’m finding they’re getting better and better at finding really good ones recently – or else my brain has got more attuned to the style. I’m definitely rating the recent ones more highly than I did the early ones. Even so, the two I’ve read from Gilbert have stood out as particularly good… 😀

  3. Though I’m close to having my fill of novels set during this time period (I still have several in my TBR pile 🙄 ), this sounds like a really good mystery. I’ll make note of it!

    • Since I started reading these books that were actually written back then, I’m now enjoying them more than historical fiction set back at that time – I don’t have to think about whether they’re authentic or get annoyed by anachronistic language and so on. I loved that this was written by someone who actually had experience of escaping from a POW camp… 😀

    • D’you know, that’s a really hard question! I liked them both equally but they’re so different from each other. Smallbone Deceased is a more traditional mystery with a lot of humour, whereas this is partly thriller. I think this one just gets the edge… but really, you should read both! 😉

    • So much good stuff coming out of these British Library reprints, FF. I know someone who’d love this. Sounds like it would make a great film, too, although it doesn’t seem to have been adapted.

      • Apparently it was made into a film, though not under that title. Martin Edwards says it was called Danger Within in Britain and Breakout in the US. He seems to think it’s well worth watching so I’m going to see if I can track it down…

  4. This one sounds good. I don’t remember reading Gilbert before, so it’s clear I need to step up my game. Thanks for the recommendation, FF!

    • So many of them are so good, especially the more recent ones – either they’re getting better at picking them or my brain has got more into the style. But I did think this one was particularly enjoyable because the setting is so unique… 😀

  5. This sounds great and very different from the usual locked room mystery! I haven’t read any Michael Gilbert books yet – I obviously need to give him a try sooner rather than later.

    • Yes, I loved the setting – it made it feel really unique and gave it that added feeling of being a thriller as well as a mystery. Both the Gilberts I’ve read so far have been excellent – looking forward to reading the third… 😀

  6. Oh this sounds delightful! Just reading your review of it made my pulse race a little. A murder mystery mixed with a war story? Yes please! How incredibly unique, it sort of reminds me of the book I read a few weeks ago, The Last by Hanna Jameson. You may have come across it in your book travels, but essentially it’s about the end of the world with a murder mystery mixed in. It was just published a few months ago…

  7. Somehow I missed this review but I’m glad I found it now. What would make me want to read a story set in WW2 is a sense of authenticity of the scene and happenings and it’s great to have your reassurance that that’s the case. The library has a copy on order and I’m now first on the reserve list!

    • This felt totally authentic to me, with the usual proviso that of course on the whole the Brits are the good guys (which of course we were.. 😉 ) But the last few chapters in particular seem to have been based largely on Gilbert’s own experiences of escape and I found them completely compelling. Hope your library gets it in soon!

  8. When I started reading your review I thought you were going to say it was full of jingoistic stereotypes so I’m relieved to hear Gilbert avoid this. It sounds great, how incredible that he was a POW himself!

    • I was worried about that too, but it was very well balanced and did draw a line between the “bad” Italians and Germans and the bulk of their populations, while some of the Brits weren’t traditionally heroic. And the last few chapter in particular seem to have drawn very much on his own experience of escape attempts and I found them totally compelling…

  9. I am glad that you enjoyed this one as much as I expected you would! I look forward to your thoughts on Death Has Deep Roots, which is less famous than the two books by Gilbert that you have already read but about which I was very pleasantly surprised.

    • It’s hard to understand why such a good writer has been allowed to fall into relative obscurity. Both of these are top rank novels of whatever era they’d been written in. I’m looking forward to Death Has Deep Roots, and I think I saw somewhere that the BL have more Gilbert on the way… 😀

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