Death Has Deep Roots by Michael Gilbert

The original Resistance…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Victoria Lamartine is on trial for murder. The Frenchwoman played a role in the Resistance in WW2 and after the war came to London in search of the young English officer with whom she’d had a wartime affair. She was working as a chambermaid in the Family Hotel in Soho when another wartime acquaintance came to stay, Major Eric Thoseby. That night, Thoseby was found stabbed to death in his room in a style reminiscent of the Resistance’s methods, and Vicky was found standing over his body. Her counsel wants her to plead guilty and beg for mercy, but Vicky’s having none of that! So just before the trial proper is about to begin, she dismisses her legal team and her solicitor asks young lawyer Nap Rumbold to take the case. Nap has just a week to find something to prove her innocence, and he must go to France and dig around in the murky history of war to find it…

This is billed as an Inspector Hazlerigg mystery but he’s barely in it. The focus is on Nap and a friend of his, Major Angus McCann, who run around doing the investigative work in France and England, while famous QC Hargest Macrea does his best to undermine the prosecution in court and string the case out as long as possible to give Nap and Angus time. The story flits between them, so that it’s part action thriller, part legal drama.

I’ve loved both of the other Michael Gilbert novels I’ve read, Smallbone Deceased and Death in Captivity, so my expectations were perhaps too high going into this one. Although it’s good overall, it doesn’t quite hit the heights of the other two. The plotting is a bit looser and the characterisation doesn’t have the same depth. The mix of drama and darkness leavened by occasional humour is still there though and the writing is of the same high quality.

The plot is rather convoluted and I don’t think it could really be described as fairplay – there are hints along the way, but not actual clues that a reader (well, this reader) could grasp. It’s almost a locked room mystery in the sense that there is only staircase leading to the victim’s hotel room and there were always people around who in theory would have seen anyone go up. Having caught their suspect the police haven’t bothered to consider other possibilities, so it’s up to Vicky’s new defence team to cast doubt on the prosecution’s evidence or, better yet, find an alternative solution.

Vicky had a child during the war, which later died. She claims the father was the officer she had been in love with. The prosecution claim that in fact Major Thoseby was the father, and Vicky had murdered him for abandoning them. Vicky is an interesting character, and through her story we get a glimpse of life in France under the Occupation for those who weren’t fully committed members of the Resistance but who helped them when they could – ordinary people, in fact. I felt Gilbert didn’t make the most of her – she fades into the background a bit as the story progresses. Gilbert also treats her rather cruelly at one point purely to make a dramatic scene. It’s very effective, but it left me feeling that he was using her simply as a plot vehicle rather than considering the humanity of her situation. (Vague – avoiding spoilers – sorry.)

Michael Gilbert

The French bit is fun, with Nap quickly getting into danger in the best thriller tradition, and much wartime murkiness to be uncovered. Nap is a likeable character, though somewhat underdeveloped in this one – I believe (from other reviews) he may appear in other Inspector Hazlerigg books so perhaps this is an effect of reading them out of order. Meantime Major McCann is doing his bit to break the locked room mystery back in London. But the star of the show is the QC, Macrea, and the courtroom chapters are particularly good as he spots inconsistencies, demolishes evidence and generally runs rings round the prosecution.

So not quite as excellent as the other two Gilbert books the BL has so far re-published, but still an enjoyable read with much to recommend it and, taken together, the three show that Gilbert is an author who thoroughly deserves this opportunity to be appreciated by a new generation of readers.

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

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Book 5 of 20

34 thoughts on “Death Has Deep Roots by Michael Gilbert

  1. I’ve only read one of Gilbert’s books up to now. After the Fine Weather, a spy mystery that didn’t really appeal to me. I think I’ll try Smallbone Deceased first rather than Death in Captivity.


    • Oh, I haven’t come across that one. He does seem to try all different styles which is quite fun – no two of them have been alike so far in my limited experience. I loved Death in Captivity but Smallbone Deceased is a much more traditional murder mystery, and very well done.


    • Excellent review with a very perceptive account of strength and weaknesses, as usual! I’d like to add two small points.
      As you note, this book is a mix of “procedural detection” and “adventure thriller” with a fair bit of court room action thrown in. Hence, I do not think that fair play clueing should be as important an evaluation criterion as it should for a straight detection story of the classic mould.
      One feature of the book which I liked a lot but your review does not mention is the almost chapter-by-chapter back-and-forth between legal/court room action in the U.K. and the more thrillerish action in France. I felt that this back-and-forth flow in the “montage” of the scenes gave the book an almost film-like flow.


      • Thank you. 😀 Yes, I felt it was the thrillerish style that probably led to the lack of fair play too in this one. It doesn’t bother me usually, since even when the clues are blindingly obvious I have an amazing ability to miss them! But I know for some people it’s important in vintage crime. You’re right – I could see this as a film! I liked the two different settings and thought the courtroom scenes especially were good. And I also liked the Major and his wife – I’m hoping perhaps they re-appear in some of his other books. I feel bad about being a little critical of this one – I’m sure if I hadn’t had such high expectations after the other two I’d have appreciated this one more…


  2. I think I have one of his books…somewhere 😉 Can’t quite put my finger on it at the moment and can’t remember which one. No doubt it’ll come to light eventually. You survived Wimbledon then!


  3. It sounds as though there are some interesting looks at the postwar life, FictionFan. And I do like Gilbert’s writing style. Still, I have to admit, I like books better when there’s fair play, and if you didn’t think that happened here…hmm….. Sounds like an interesting premise, though, and I do like Gilbert’s work as a rule.


    • I think it was maybe because it had a thriller-ish feel to it that stopped it being fair play – it was a kind of mix of styles really. I did enjoy it though, just not as much as the other two I’ve read. I suspect if I’d read this one first I’d have been less critical…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree with you about the character of Vicky, she should have been made more of. Not really a mystery the kind of mystery the reader can work out, so I do understand what you mean about fair play. Nevertheless I did enjoy this one.


    • Yes, I felt Vicky started out really well, then faded away. It had more of a thriller feel than a traditional mystery format which might have been why the fair play thing didn’t happen. But I did enjoy it, and if I’d read it before loving the other two of his I’d probably have been less critical of this one…


  5. I have Death in Captivity on my wish list, but I’ll wait until I get around to it before moving forward with any others. I do really like the cover on this one!


    • I love all their covers – they really add to the enjoyment! Death In Captivity is great – I hope you enjoy it as much as I did when you get to it. This one was good, but not up to quite the same standard, I thought…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve resisted the BL series and their attractive covers so far, for fear I’d get drawn in, but I’m weakening each time I read a review, even the lukewarm ones… HELP!


  7. Ooh, another Gilbert! I suppose (too) high expectations might not be the ideal starting point. It still sounds like a decent read, but I am fairly sure my next Michael Gilbert will be Death in Captivity (for which my expectations will be ridiculously high after having read Smallbone Deceased plus your glowing review).


    • Haha – I’m scared now! Maybe I should tell you that on second thoughts I didn’t think much of Death In Captivity and then you could go in with safely low expectations… 😉 Seriously, though, I suspect if I’d read this one first I’d have enjoyed it more – it just didn’t quite come up to the same level as the other two. For me, anyway!


  8. I very rarely guess the solutions to mystery novels anyway, so the solution not being fair play isn’t as much of a concern for me! I still think I’ll be reading Death in Captivity as my next Gilbert but I’ll probably pick this one up too at some point.


    • Nor me! But I mentioned it anyway because I know for some people it’s one of the things they look for in vintage crime. All three are well worth reading, but I think Death In Captivity is the one I’ve enjoyed most. Hope you do too! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Lots to mine in this British Library isn’t there? I love some good wartime murkiness as well, it adds another layer to historical fiction that never seems to disappoint.


    • So many good books and authors to rediscover – I’m so glad the BL is bringing them out. I think I’ve enjoyed the wartime based ones most – definitely gives a different perspective of life at that time.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Of the three, I think I liked Death In Captivity most so good choice! Yes, I think they’ve been on a real run recently – they seem more consistently good than the early ones were. Or else I’ve been brainwashed…

      Liked by 1 person

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