A locked tunnel mystery…
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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.
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.