Not long ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Harriett Gilbert, an acclaimed novelist and radio presenter - and also the daughter of one of my long-time favourite crime writers, Michael Gilbert. I invited her to be guest speaker at the Detection Club's most recent dinner, and like all all my colleagues I really enjoyed listening to Harriett talking, with great affection, about her father's work. And this splendid occasion, among other things, has prompted me to revisit several of his books.
Close Quarters, first published in 1947, was his first novel. I borrowed it from our local library at a very tender age; more recently, to my delight, I managed to lay my hands on a signed first edition, and because I think lovely books should be read, rather than just gazed at admiringly, I have just re-read it, with much pleasure. The story is set in 1937, and apparently Gilbert wrote it before the Second World War, but his time in service (including a spell as a prisoner of war in Italy) meant that his attempts to establish himself as an author were put on hold until hostilities ceased. Once he'd got into print, however, there was no stopping him, and books and short stories began to flow from his pen.
Gilbert's work was exceptionally varied, but this first effort was very definitely in the tradition of the Golden Age whodunit. There is a "closed circle" setting which just happens to be a cathedral close. There's a cast of characters, maps of the close, and even a crossword puzzle which plays a part in the storyline. And Chief Inspector Hazlerigg, who featured in several of Gilbert's later mysteries, makes his debut.
As you'd expect from a first novel, this one has some flaws. In particular, I feel that there are too many people - the first chapter introduces them at a rather dizzying rate, and although Gilbert's urbane storytelling style is already in evidence, I shared Hazlerigg's irritation at the fact that a crucial piece of information was kept from him for three days. Nonetheless, an enjoyable book, and the start of an admirable career. Many years later, incidentally, Gilbert returned to Melchester Cathedral for The Black Seraphim, though the later book wasn't a sequel to his debut.