Fear to Tread is one of Michael Gilbert's early books, dating from 1953, and isn't especially well-known. It's a thriller, rather than a detective story or a police novel, although Gilbert's series police detective Hazlerigg plays a small part in the story. But that's typical Gilbert: he focused on storytelling rather than writing series. Here, the hero is a headmaster called Mr Wetherall, whose hatred of bullying leads him into danger.
I first read the novel at the back end of the 60s, when I first discovered Gilbert. I have to confess that it didn't make as great an impression on me as much of his other work. Part of the reason for that is that much of the book's appeal lies in its depiction of shabby post-war London, and at that time, I didn't know London at all. Another explanation is that Gilbert was writing an authentic, and fairly realistic novel about crime and corruption. He even includes an extract from a newspaper report of 1953 to emphasise the topicality of his story. But writing topical crime fiction is a risky business.
It's risky because it dates quickly, and less than twenty years after the book was published, it didn't seem - at least to my younger self- to be in the least topical. Life had moved on. In many ways, the mood of this story is in tune with the post-war black and white films often to be found on the Talking Pictures TV channel. In the 21st century, on the other hand, the book has added value as a sort of social document.
Mr Wetherall stumbles across a glorified black market racket, and finds him up against some very ruthless criminals. Gilbert shows how a decent, relatively ordinary man can find himself threatened, and find himself drawing upon unsuspected reserves of courage. (Some of his later books are in a similar vein - an outstanding example is The Crack in the Teacup, one of my favourites). I liked this book better the second time around. It's not one of his finest books, but now I can admire the smoothness of Gilbert's storytelling. He made it look so easy. .