Michael Gilbert Essay - Critical Essays


With skill, artistry, and care, Michael Gilbert wrote a wide range of works, from strict intellectual puzzles to novels of action and romance, from espionage and Geoffrey Household-type suspense to the police procedural, all set in a variety of finely delineated European and British locales. Varied, too, is his range of topics: archaeology and art (The Etruscan Net, 1969), academia in general and boarding schools in particular (The Night of the Twelfth), cricket (The Crack in the Teacup, 1966), the Church of England (Close Quarters, 1947), libraries (Sky High), and law (Smallbone Deceased, 1950, and Death Has Deep Roots). Gilbert’s characters are well rounded, his authenticity of detail convincing, his sense of people and place compelling and engaging. His plots are complex but believable, substantially and plausibly developed. They involve numerous twists and turns that keep the reader guessing. In fact, Gilbert employs a chess analogy in several works to give a sense of the intricacy of the human game, from castling to checkmate, with the analogy carried out to its fullest in The Final Throw (1982), the story of a deadly game of attrition and loss in which pawns are sacrificed and last-chance risks are taken. His sometimes rapidly shifting points of view add to this intricacy.

Gilbert’s works are all solid entertainment, with intricate plots, clever clues, and numerous suspects who are treated with humor, understatement, and, occasionally, a touch of the satiric. His heroes are usually rugged individualists with quick minds, sharp tongues, and resilient bodies. Many of his books build on his knowledge of the law and of the drama of the British legal system: They describe the internal workings of law firms and delineate courtroom style, legal techniques, and police, forensic, and court procedure. His protagonists, sometimes young solicitors with whom he clearly identifies, use that system to pursue justice and legal revenge.

Smallbone Deceased and Death Has Deep Roots

Set in a solicitor’s office, where a corpse is discovered in a hermetically sealed deedbox, Smallbone Deceased allows the author to satirize gently the eccentric types associated with his own profession, while Death Has Deep Roots exploits its courtroom setting to find an alternate explanation to what seems like an open-and-shut case. One solicitor therein describes his strategy:I happen to be old-fashioned enough to think that a woman in distress ought to be helped. Especially when she is a foreigner and about to be subjected to the savage and unpredictable caprices of the English judicial system. . . . We’re going to fight a long, dirty blackguarding campaign in which we shall use every subterfuge that the law allows, and perhaps even a few that it doesn’t—you can’t be too particular when you’re defending.

Smallbone Deceased begins with an elevated but boring, eulogistic tribute to the departed head of a law firm, punctuated by irreverent asides from his underlings, then focuses on how those assistants have the training to observe details that will later prove vital to preventing more murder. Death Has Deep Roots demonstrates how a skilled lawyer can use his knowledge of character, the few facts he has, and a team of assistants tracking down discrepancies at home and abroad to undercut the prosecution’s case and at the end reveal truths that lay hidden for far too long. Flash Point (1974), in turn, demonstrates how politics affects law and justice, as the solicitor-hero seeks to reopen a case concerning a former union man now high up in government service and gets so caught up in the extremes of left and right that “justice” becomes very difficult to determine.

A Gilbert novel often depends on an amateur detective, such as Henry Bohun, a statistician, actuary, and solicitor, who is in the right place at the right time to have his imagination challenged by the puzzle of Trustee Smallbone’s unexpected appearance in a deedbox. Gilbert describes him as looking “like some mechanic with a bent for self-improvement, a student of Kant and Schopenhauer, who tended his lathe by day and sharpened his wits of an evening on dead dialecticians.” People trust him and open up to him, and, while he cannot do what the police do so well (take statements, photographs, and fingerprints, and the like), he can get close to those immediately involved and pick up details and relationships to which the police would have no access. In Death Has Deep Roots, there are two amateurs working for the defense, one trying to prove the accused’s claims about her lover, the other investigating the mysterious wartime events in France that bind several witnesses against the accused. In The Empty House (1978), a tall, thin, neophyte insurance investigator, Peter Maniciple, becomes entangled in the machinations of British, Israeli, and Palestinian agents to control secrets unraveled by a kindly geneticist who wants only to escape them all. Liz, a bass in a village church choir, investigates arson and theft in Sky High; an art-gallery owner and an expert on Etruscan art becomes tangled in a net of tomb robbing in The Etruscan Net, while Mr. Wetherall, the headmaster of a London high school in The Night of the Twelfth, wages a one-man war on black-market crime.

Gilbert’s protagonists might use old resistance networks, boarding school companions, kindly innkeepers, or even a network of citizens to help gather information, trace a car, or escape pursuit. At other times they expose the ruthlessness of the bourgeoisie: the colonel who has no qualms about arranging an “accidental” death and the museum representative who condones the illegal origins of his purchase.

Luke Pagan Series

Gilbert embarked on historical fiction with the Luke Pagan series: Ring of Terror (1995), Into Battle (1997), Over and Out, all espionage novels set during World War I. Despite his name, Pagan is a by-the-book detective, but his partner Joe Narrabone, a likeable rogue, has no compunctions about breaking the letter of the law to preserve its spirit.

These historical novels demonstrate Gilbert’s interest in the evolution of espionage tactics...

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