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

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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Smallbone Deceased (Inspector Hazlerigg 4) by Michael Gilbert

A unique filing system…

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Young Bob Horniman has taken over as partner in the law firm of Horniman, Birley and Craine, following the very recent death of his father, the senior partner, Abel Horniman. Abel was an organisational fanatic, so there’s a place for everything in the office, and everything is in its place. That’s the theory anyway, until one day Bob and his secretary are looking for papers relating to an estate of which his father was a trustee. On opening the relevant deed box, they find the papers are missing, and in their place is the rather decayed body of Marcus Smallbone, the other trustee. Enter Inspector Hazlerigg and his team…

Gilbert was a lawyer in real life, and he has a lot of fun here with the portrayal of a mid-rank law firm – successful enough, with a solid clientele of the rich and respectable, but not dealing in glamorous criminal law. Rather, these lawyers make a living out of wills, estates, trusts and property conveyancing. When it becomes clear that Smallbone has been deceased for several weeks, Hazlerigg’s first task is to determine who was working in the firm over the likely period. He spots a name he knows – Henry Bohun, a newly qualified lawyer who joined the firm on the day the body was discovered, meaning that he is almost certainly innocent. Hazlerigg knows something of the man, that’s he’s intelligent and resourceful with a good war record, so asks him to become a kind of “inside” man for the investigation. And, while we see a fair amount of Hazlerigg and his men, Bohun quickly becomes the main protagonist of the story.

The plot is interesting and reasonably fair-play, though I got nowhere near the solution. The format is rather different from the usual mystery novel, in that, while everyone who was working in the firm is a suspect, none of them are really given known motives. The hunt for the motive is played out alongside a lot of checking of alibis and so on to work out who would have had the opportunity to kill Smallbone. There’s also far less emphasis than usual on the detective interviewing the suspects – we often learn what suspects have said second-hand, through conversations between various policemen or Hazlerigg and Bohun. I must admit I found this all kept me at more of a distance from most of the characters than I prefer, though the young lawyers all come vividly and enjoyably to life.

Challenge details:
Book: 67
Subject Heading: The Justice Game
Publication Year: 1950

But the book has other delights which more than make up for this minor lack. As a new boy, Bohun is more involved with the lowly employees than the exalted partners, and the portrayal of the young, exclusively male, lawyers and the female secretaries is great. Sexism is of course rampant, as it was in offices back in those days, but here it’s treated as fun, with the young men flirting and the women either responding favourably or rejecting them brutally. We get to overhear the women’s view of the men amongst themselves, and also the men’s opinions of the women. It’s all done for humour, so there’s no meanness or nastiness about it, and it keeps the tone delightfully light-hearted for the most part. However, we also see power at play, and how easily employees can be bullied by their bosses with no real means of fighting back.

Meantime, Hazlerigg’s team are checking out other aspects of the case. We follow Sergeant Plumptree as he tries to sift through all the various alibis of the staff, and Mr Hoffman, an accountant, who is examining the trust of which Smallbone was a trustee, and also the wider financial affairs of the firm. Surprisingly, Gilbert manages to make these rather dry subjects highly entertaining. Poor Plumptree has a tough job pinning down the whereabouts of his suspects and we’re shown the plodding, painstaking and often frustrating nature of the work, but all done with an edge of humour. Hoffman is helped in his task by Bohun, that man of many talents, and between them they show how tiny discrepancies can give the clue that leads to the unravelling of the most tightly woven plot.

Michael Gilbert

This is my first Michael Gilbert, so I don’t know how usual it is for Hazlerigg to take a rather muted role in the investigation, but I really didn’t feel as if I got to know him much at all. However I enjoyed Bohun as a kind of amateur sidekick to the police, and found the office flirtations and rivalries highly entertaining. The whole thing is very well written, with that lightness of tone despite dark deeds that I find so characteristic and appealing about Golden Age crime – this was published in 1950, so a little later than true Golden Age, but it feels as if it fits square in that category nonetheless. The British Library has republished three of Gilbert’s books this year, and I’m very much looking forward to reading the other two. Highly recommended.

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

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