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by Bamber Gascoigne

Michael (Francis) Gilbert (1912-2006)


English mystery writer, whose career spanned over 50 years. Gilbert published thrillers and short stories, espionage and police procedural novels, he wrote for plays for the theatre, radio and television, and compiled books on interesting legal cases. His highly entertaining works gained a wide audience with their complex plotting, detailed settings, and well portrayed characters. Gilbert's work shows the durability of the traditional detective novel in Britain. - In 1987 the critic H.R.F. Keating included Gilbert's Smallbonbe Deceased (1950), set in a firm of London solicitors, among the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published.

"The plot is in every way as good as those of Agatha Christie at her best: as neatly dovetailed, as inherently complex yet retaining a decent credibility, and as full of cunningly-suggested red herrings... Its background - the workings, lightly exaggerated, of a firm of ultra-respectable London solicitors - is every bit as amusing and informative as that of Dorothy L. Sayers' Murder Must Advertise." (Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books by H.R.F. Keating, 1987, p. 95)

Michael Gilbert was born in Lincolnshire, the son of Anne Cuthbert, a journalist, and Bernard Gilbert, a poet, playwright, and novelist. He was educated at St. Peter's School, Seaford, Sussex, Blundell's School (1926-31), and at the University of London, attaining LL.B. with honors in 1937. For a short period he taught in Salisbury's cathedral choir school. Gilbert's novels Close Quarters (1947) and The Night of the Twelfth (1976) were partly based on his experiences as a schoolmaster. The main plot in the latter concerns the torture and murder of schoolboys. Another plot deals with terrorists and their target, the son of the Israeli ambassador.

Gilbert started to write in 1938, but the war intervened and his first book did not appear until 1947. During World War II he served in the Royal Horse Artillery in North Africa and Europe. He was captured in 1943 in North Africa and sent to a military prison near Parma, Campo 49, Fontanellato. On the way, Gilbert managed to jump from the train bringing him from a transit camp but he damaged his ankle and was quickly recaptured by the Italians.

Following the fall of Mussolini in July 1943, the guards ran away from the camp. Instead of heading to Switzerland, Gilbert and many other POW's made their way to the Allied lines, dodging German troops. Gilbert used his experiences in Campo 21 and later Fontanellato in the novel Death in the Captivity (1952), which also inspired the film Danger Within (1959), starring Richard Todd, Michael Wilding, and Richard Attenborough. The book was dedicated to Toby Graham, later a cross-country skier and a university professor, and Tony Davies, the two prisoners with whom he escaped with from Fontanellato in September 1943.

On 31 October, they met a Canadian armoured car patrol in the village of Lucito. Gilbert rejoined his regiment in 1944; he left the service with the rank of major. Tony Davies published his own account, mostly written in the late 1940s, of the journey down the Apennines, When the Moon Rises: An Escape Through Wartime Italy, in 1973.

The suspense in Danger Within (also known as Breakout) was built around escape attempts and a traitor, whose identity is revealed early in the film. At the beginning there is an image of a British soldier lying face down in the desert sand. At the end of the credits, the seemingly dead man scratches his bottom before he turns around, he is apparently taking a nap inside an Italian POW camp. Michael Caine appeared in the film, but his role was so small it remained uncredited. 

After the war Gilbert worked as a solicitor (1947-51), and became in 1952 a partner in the law firm of Trower, Still, and Kealing. In 1947 he married Roberta Mary Marsden; they had five daughters and two sons. During his early days as a London solicitor Gilbert became legal adviser to Raymond Chandler. They often had a lunch at Simpson's in the Strand. When Chandler decided to marry his secretary Jean Fracasse a year before his death, he instructed Gilbert to set up trusts for her two children. Soon after this Chandler  proposed marriage to Kay West and he wanted to make West the beneficiary of his will. Gilbert retired from the firm in 1983.

Gilbert was admitted in 1949 to the Detection Club, formed by Anthony Berkeley, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and other leading British mystery writers. The meetings were held at various restaurants in London, where the members would "discuss various plots and schemes of crime." Gilbert was also a founding member of the British Crime Writers Association. In 1988 he was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, and he won the Life Achievement Anthony Award at the 1990 Bouchercon in London. In 1980 Gilbert was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Besides crime novels Gilbert wrote short stories and plays. The author's legal background contributed to his novels about law, young solicitors, and courtroom procedures. In addition, Gilbert  edited a book of legal anecdotes. He died on February 8, 2006, at his home in Luddesdown, Kent.

Several of his books Gilbert wrote on his 50-minute trip between his home in Kent and work place in London. As a mystery novelist Gilbert made his debut with the locked-room mystery Close Quarters. It introduced Inspector Hazelrigg, master of deduction, who is one of the earliest realistic British policemen in fiction. Hazelrigg has more than 30 years experience, he is red-faced and bulky, and has a cat in his office. Dedicated to his work, he appeared in several mysteries set in the London underworld, the Soho trattorias and nightclubs, and the gangland down by the docks. Hazelrigg also fought against fascist organizations.

Another of Gilbert's much-loved characters, the insomniac solicitor Henry Bohun, was introduced in the classic novel Smallbone Deceased, in which the remains of a law firm's client are found in a deed box. Although Hazlerigg is the leading detective, Bohun is responsible for much of the investigation. The book has one of the most eloquent depictions of intoxication in the mystery genre: "John had by now reached that well-defined stage in intoxication when every topic becomes the subject of exposing and generalisation, when sequences of thought range themselves in the speaker's mind, strewn about with flowery metaphor and garlanded in chains of pellucid logic; airborne flights of oratory to which the only obstacle is a certain difficulty with the palatal consonants." Bohun is excessively energetic and his background gives him many talents: he has been a medical student, an actuary, a research statistician, a soldier during WWII. Finally he has chosen a legal career at the office of Horniman, Birley, and Crane, a respectably London firm. In The Crack in the Teacup (1966) the hero was also a young solicitor and finds himself involved in a major campaign against racketeering. Bohun reappeared in several short stories, which were collected in Stay of Execution  (1971).

In the postwar caper The Doors Open (1949), Gilbert made an excursion into the world of high finance. The book was written on a commuter train. In the story one of the protagonists, Paddy Yeatman-Carter, sees a man attempt suicide on a commuter train. When the man shows up dead the next day, Paddy and his friend Nap Rumbold, a lawyer, become suspicious of the dead man's employers, an insurance company. This time Chief Inspector Hazlerigg spends much of his time in his office at New Scotland Yard, while amateur helpers try to solve the case. 

Ellery Queen regarded Game Without Rules (1967) as one of "the best volumes of spy stories ever written." The book appeared in the ultra-heroic age of agent fiction, but reflected more the Kim Philby and Profumo spy scandals of 1950s and early 1960s Britain. The central characters are Daniel Calder, whose hobbies are firing small arms and playing the cello, and his friend Samuel Behrens, who is a specialist in European languages. They are gentleman-spies, who operate mainly in England, and in most cases try to stop traitors from giving away secrets to the Soviets. When needed, they can be ruthless, too, "middle-aged cutthroats" as they are called in 'The Spoilers'. One of the stories, 'Heilige Nacht,' takes place in the divided Germany, the most popular scene of spy fiction. 

The courtroom drama The Queen Against Karl Mullen (1991) was about the situation in South Africa and the anti-apartheid movement. It was not written in the straitjacket of 'politically correct' stories, but presented an unlikable South African security-chief Karl Mullen. He has come to England to try to extradite black writer-activist Jack Katanga, who is wanted back home for murdering a policeman. When Katanga suddenly dies, Mullen is the obvious suspect.

The half-Spanish Patrick Petrella is a hardworking member of the Metropolitan Police, London, whose attention to details and interest in people is seen already in the early story 'The Second Skin' (1958). The author of  The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery (1999) Bruce F. Murphy has called him "one of the least-know great detectives in the genre". (The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery by Bruce F. Murphy, 1999, p. 205) His first cases appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in the late 1950s. From these times Petrella progressed from a sergeant to a Detective Superintendent, who takes on organized crime in London's Docklands. Off duty he enjoys a glass of port and a good book. He is respected by his fellow officers and he has solved every type of crime. Petrella's father was a member of the political branch of the Spanish police and his mother is of British origin.

Blood and Judgement (1958) was Gilbert's first police procdedural novel. In Roller Coaster (1993) a police informer dies during a grotesque trial held by criminals. "Prisoner at the bar," the judge resumed, "after a full and fair hearing you have been found guilty of the foul crime of treason. Treason to your fellows. For such an offence there is only one possible sentence." He took a black silk handkerchief out of his pocket and spread it over his bald and sun-burnt head. "The sentence is death. It only remains to decide how you shall depart this life. I am open to suggestions from the court." Petrella uncovers a smuggling ring but his own views again conflict with the justice system.

"In the ensuing days the ripples spread, wider and wider, diminishing in size and importance as they became more distant from the centre of the disturbance. Petrella worked his way from near relatives and close friends, who said, 'How terrible! Whoever would have thought of anything like that happening to Marjorie,' and then through more distant connections who said, 'Miss Martin? Yes I know her. I haven't seen her, for a long time,' all the way out to the circumference where people simply looked bewildered and said, 'Miss Martin? I'm sorry, I don't think I remember anyone of that name.'" (from 'The Seond Skin')

In Ring of Terror (1995) Gilbert broke new ground: a historical thriller set in the pre-WW I East End, with the theme of social class. The protagonist is an admirable, ambitious, slightly naive constable Luke Pagan. Because he can speak Russian, he is involved, with his unorthodox partner Joe Narrabone, in investigating an anarchist conspiracy. Into Battle (1997) continued the story of Pagan, who joins on the eve of World War I a brand new intelligence agency and goes into battle against a legion of German spies.

The Man Who Hated Banks and Other Mysteris (1997) was a tribute to Gilbert's 50th anniversary as a published author. The collection of 18 stories featured four of his characters: Chief Inspector Hazlerigg, solicitor Henry Bohun, Inspector Patrick Petrella, and the tough-guy Mercer. Over and Out (1998) focused again on the life of Luke Pagan. The story is set in the years of the First World War, when the morale of the troops has gone down and large-scale desertion is becoming a real likelihood. Pagan, working for the Intelligence Corps, is asked to investigate an organisation run by a Belgian traitor which encourages British soldiers to abandon the trenches and go over to the other side.

 For further reading: The Legal Thriller from Gardner to Grisham: See you in Court! by Lars Ole Sauerberg (2016); 'Michael Gilbert (b. 1912) UK,' in The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction, compiled by Mike Ashley (2002); 'Gilbert, Michael,' in The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery by Bruce F. Murphy (1999); Mystery and Suspense Writers, vol. 1, ed. by Robin W. Winks (1998); British Mystery and Thriller Writers Since 1940, ed. by Bernard Benstock and Thomas F. Stanley (1989); Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books by H.R.F. Keating (1987); 'Gilbert, Michael (Francis)' by Frank Denton, in Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, ed. by John M. Reilly (1985); Twelve Englishmen of Mystery, ed. by Earl F. Bargainnier (1984). Note: Cyril Hare's Tragedy at Law, which Gilbert found while he was a prisoner of war in Italy, inspired his crime writing. He also edited a collection of Cyril Hare's detective stories (1959).

Selected works:

  • Close Quarters, 1947 (Inspector Hazelrigg novel)
    - Katedraalin varjossa (suom. Martti Montonen, 1956)
  • They Never Looked Inside, 1948 (Inspector Hazelrigg novel; US title: He Didn't Mind Danger, 1948)
  • The Doors Open, 1949 (Inspector Hazelrigg novel)
  • Smallbone Deceased, 1950 (Inspector Hazelrigg novel)
  • Death Has Deep Roots, 1951 (Inspector Hazelrigg novel)
    - film: Je plaide non coupable (1956; UK and U.S.: Guilty?), dir. by Edmond Gréville, screnplay by Maurice J. Wilson, starring John Justin, Barbara Laage, Donald Wolfit, Stephen Murray
  • Death in Captivity, 1952 (US title: The Danger Within, 1952)
    - Kuolema vankileirillä (suom. Martti Montonen, 1958)
    - film: Danger Within (1959; U.S. title: Breakout), dir. by Don Chaffey, screenplay by Bryan Forbes, Frank Harvey, starring Richard Todd, Bernard Lee, Michael Wilding, Richard Attenborough
  • Dr. Crippen, 1953
  • Death in Captivity, 1953 (radio play)
  •  Fear to Tread, 1953 (Inspector Hazelrigg novel)
  • Sky High, 1955 (US title: The Country-House Burglar, 1955)
    - Taivaan tuuliin (suom. Martti Montonen, 1959)
  • The Man Who Could Not Sleep, 1955 (radio play)
  • Crime Report, 1956 (radio play)
  • Doctor at Law, 1956 (radio play)
  • Be Shot for Sixpence, 1956
  • The Crime of the Century, 1956 (serial; television play)
  • Wideawake, 1957 (serial; television play)
  • The Claimant, 1957
  • The Waterloo Table, 1957 (radio play)
  • The Body of a Girl, 1958 (television play)
  • Fair Game, 1958 (serial; television play)
  • Crime Report, 1958 (television play)
  • You Must Take Things Easy, 1958 (radio play)
  • Blood and Judgment, 1959 (Patrick Petrella series) 
  • Crime in Good Company: Essays on Criminals and Crime-Writing, 1959 (ed.)
  • Best Detective Stories of Cyril Hare, 1959 (ed.)
  • A Clean Kill, 1959 (play)
  • Blackmail Is So Difficult, 1959 (television play)
  • Dangerous Ice, 1959 (television play)
  • The Bargain, 1961 (play)
  • A Clean Kill, 1961 (television play)
  • The Men from Room 13, 1961 (serial; television play; based on a work by Stanley Firmin)
  • Scene of the Accident, 1961 (television play)
  • The Betrayers, 1962 (television play; based on a story by Stanley Ellin)
  • The Shot in Question, 1963 (play)
  • Windfall, 1963 (play)
  • After the Fine Weather, 1963
  • Trial Run, 1963 (television play)
  • The Blackmailing of Mr. S., 1964 (television play)
  • Stay of Execution, 1965 (radio play)
  • The Mind of the Enemy, 1965 (serial; television play)
  • The Man in the Room 17, 1966 (television play)
  • The Crack in the Teacup, 1966
  • Game Without Rules, 1967
  • The Dust and the Heath, 1967 (US title: Overdrive, 1968)
  • Game Without Rules, 1968
  • Game Without Rules, 1968 (radio plays)
  • The Etruscan Net, 1969 (US title: The Family Tomb, 1969)
  • The Last Chapter, 1970 (radio play)
  • Stay of Execution and Other Stories of Legal Practice, 1971
  • Misleading Cases, 1971 (serial; television play, with Christopher Bond, based on a work by A.P. Herbert)
  • Hadleigh, 1971 (television play)
  • The Body of a Girl, 1972
  • Black Light, 1972 (radio play)
  • The Ninety-Second Tiger, 1973
  • Amateur in Violence, 1973 (Patrick Petrella series)
    - film: The Unstoppable Man (1960), dir. by Terry Bishop, starring Marius Goring, Cameron Mitchell, Harry H. Corbett
  • Money to Burn, 1974 (television play, from the novel by Margery Allingham)
  • Flash Point, 1974 (radio play)
  • Where There's a Will, 1975
  • Where There's a Will, 1975 (television play)
  • The Night of the Twelfth, 1976
  • Petrella, 1970 (radio plays)
  • Petrella at Q, 1977 (Patrick Petrella novel)
  • The Law, 1977
  • The Empty House, 1978
    - Pimeä polku (suom. Kari Nenonen, 1987)
  • In the Nick of Time, 1979 (radio play)
  • The Last Tenant, 1979 (radio play)
  • Death of a Favorite Girl, 1980 (US title: The Killing of Katie Steelstock, 1980)
    - TV-tähden kuolema (suom. Marja Hildén, 1987)
  • Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens, 1982
  • The Final Throw, 1982 (U.S. title: End-Game, 1982)
    - Viimeinen isku (suom. Pentti Kirstilä, 1991)
  • The Black Seraphim, 1983
  • The Oyster Catcher, 1983 (radio play)
  • The Long Journey Home, 1985
  • The Oxford Book of Legal Anecdotes, 1986 (ed.)
  • Trouble, 1987
  • 'The Fraudsters': Six Against the Law, 1987
  • Young Petrella, 1988 (Patrick Petrella novel)
  • Paint, Gold and Blood, 1989
  • The Road to Damascus, 1990
  • Anything for a Quiet Life, 1990
  • The Queen Against Karl Mullen, 1991
  • Prep School: An Anthology, 1991 (compiled by Michael Gilbert
  • Death Has Deep Roots, 1992
  • Roller-Coaster, 1993 (Patrick Petrella novel)
  • Ring of Terror, 1995 (Luke Pagan novel)
  • Into Battle, 1997 (Luke Pagan novel)
  • The Man Who Hated Banks and Other Mysteries, 1997 (Patrick Petrella stories)
  • Over and Out, 1998 (Luke Pagan novel)
  • The Mathematics of Murder, 2000
  • The Curious Conspiracy, 2002
  • Old Mr. Martin: A Patrick Petrella Story, 2002
  • Even Murderers Take Holidays and Other Mysteries, 2007 (edited and introduced by John Cooper)
  • A Pity about the Girl and Other Stories, 2008 (edited and introduced by John Cooper)
  • The Murder of Diana Devon and Other Mysteries, 2009  (edited and introduced by John Cooper)

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