One of the drawbacks of working from home is that I no longer get to listen to downloads of Radio 4 programmes while driving to and from work each day, and so I’ve accumulated a substantial backlog on my MP3 player. Fortunately, though, I had to drive to Rothesay this week, a round trip of some 12 hours, and so I have caught up substantially through listening to multiple episodes of Feedback, Last Word, Saturday Review, More or Less, Counterpoint, The Life Scientific and, a particular favourite, A Good Read, with the estimable Harriet Gilbert.
My interest in Ms Gilbert is not just that she’s an excellent and quirky presenter, skilled at drawing out the views of her guests, but also that she’s the daughter of one of my favourite neglected authors, the crime- and thriller-writer, Michael Gilbert.
Michael Gilbert enjoyed a very long life—he died in 2006 at the age of 93—and a similarly long writing career, publishing his first novel in 1948 and his last in 1999. That means he was a contemporary of much better-remembered writers such as Michael Innes and Edmund Crispin, as well as overlapping with the later careers of such eminent figures in the crime and thriller worlds as Margery Allingham, Eric Ambler, and, of course Agatha Christie. I think he’s as good a writer as any of those famous names, and better than some of them, but, curiously, the very qualities for which I admire him may be the factors that have led to his neglect.
First, he didn’t stick to one genre, but wrote detective novels, thrillers, and espionage fiction. And he didn’t hesitate to mix genres. I’m currently reading one of his most acclaimed books, Death in Captivity from 1952, which is a murder mystery set in a POW camp in Italy and based directly on Gilbert’s own wartime experiences: it was made into a film in 1958. Previously I’d read The Empty House of 1978 which starts out as a murder mystery and turns into a spy thriller. Its innocent hero is thrust into a world whose cynicism, ruthlessness, and disregard for the law strike a remarkably contemporary resonance. It’s an absolute page-turner.
And then, although some of his central characters do reappear in several titles, none of them achieved the fame—or notoriety—of an Albert Campion, a John Appleby, or a Hercule Poirot. That of course left Gilbert free to tell the stories he wanted to, without being shackled by readers’—and publishers’—expectations, but it also militated against his books becoming really popular, and his characters lasting in the collective memory. Just as with his cross-genre plots, Gilbert often compounded this characteristic by writing stories which had no one central character, but instead multiple viewpoints. That makes for an exhilarating, but also a more demanding, read.
Finally, although his books can have a whimsical tone (Smallbone Deceased) that is reminiscent, say, of Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop, or a boy’s-own-adventure quality (The Etruscan Net) comparable to Michael Innes’s wonderful The Journeying Boy, all those I’ve read, no matter how fantastical their plots, have an underlying toughness and realism that prevents them from offering a cosy nostalgia for the innocent days before Prime Suspect or The Killing.
One thing that Michael Gilbert does share with his genre contemporaries is that his books are short—rarely exceeding 250 pages. His story-telling is wonderfully terse and economical: the opening chapter frequently throws the reader in media res, with setting and character introduction following later. That’s a virtue we need to rediscover. I remember the wise and canny editor and literary agent John Jarrold telling budding SF writers that their books needed to be 400 pages long to meet publishers’ demands, as it seems readers today measure a book’s value by its length as much as, or more than, by its quality. The result is too often padded, if not bloated, and has resulted in the ruination of many previously fine genre writers.
So, again unlike Allingham or Christie, Michael Gilbert’s name has not been revived through regular TV and radio adaptations, and as a result most of his books have been out of print for many years—so many years that they now rarely surface in charity shops, so obsessed are those enterprises with only the latest bestsellers, nor in libraries where older copies have long since worn out. But technology has come to Gilbert’s rescue. A huge number of his titles are now available in Kindle editions, while battered copies of those old paperback editions can be ordered from online sites like Abe Books for a pittance.
So I’m glad to say you have no excuse for not discovering Michael Gilbert’s merits for yourself—he really is A Good Read.
© Robert Livingston
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