Michael Gilbert's The Crack in the Teacup, first published in 1966, was a book I borrowed from the library when I was about thirteen or so, and discovering what an entertaining writer he was. In those days, of course, he also seemed very contemporary in comparison to Christie and Sayers, for instance, and this element of his writing also appealed to the young Martin Edwards. I remember really enjoying this book in my youth, and wondered how it would hold up now that I'm so much older. To my delight, it gripped me from start to finish. And because I've now had a lifetime in the legal profession, I appreciated Gilbert's wry observations about legal life much more than I could have done all those years ago.
And that is despite the fact that this is in many ways a low-key book, quite close (as was The Dust and the Heat) in style to a mainstream novel, and not quite what you'd expect from a conventional thriller or detective story. Anthony Brydon, the hero, is a young solicitor. He's 23, and already a partner in his firm (blimey; wouldn't happen today) and has no experience with women (blimey again) despite his eagerness to put that right - something he achieves over the course of the story.
The setting is a pleasant, well-heeled coastal town. The place seems almost idyllic, but something unpleasant is going on beneath the surface. Anthony becomes convinced of the existence of some form of corrupt conspiracy, and delves into local politics and planning law in the course of his unlikely investigation. And along the way, The Crack in the Teacup turns into a sort of genteel British counterpart to Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, but with much less bloodshed, as Gilbert presents a compelling picture of the way that a society that can be ruined by corruption. And, Gilbert being a pragmatist with a cynical turn of mind, the result of Anthony's investigations is not quite what one might expect.
A book as under-stated as this won't appeal to everyone. There isn't even a killing until very near the end. But if you like cool, exceptionally readable and slyly humorous writing, and if you're interested in a picture of English provincial life in the 60s, you'll find a lot to please you in The Crack in the Teacup. It's one of the best books Gilbert ever wrote. The title, by the way, comes from W.H. Auden.