Sunday 13 January 2019

The Return of Michael Gilbert

Image result for smallbone deceased

Regular readers of this blog will be well aware of my enthusiasm for the work of Michael Gilbert. He was one of the most successful male British crime writers of the post-war era, and during the course of his long career he showed an ability to master a wide range of different types of storytelling - espionage, adventure, classic detection, courtroom drama, the impossible crime mystery, the short story, the stage play, the tv script. That versatility probably counted against him, to some extent, in terms of fame or total book sales, as it did in respect of his colleague and contemporary Julian Symons. But like Symons', his achievements were remarkable.

So I am absolutely delighted that the latest British Library Crime Classic is Smallbone Deceased, widely regarded as one of the finest crime novels ever to be set within the legal profession. The story benefits from a pleasing plot, an unusual amateur sleuth, and an insider's view of life in a post-war solicitors' firm. What Gilbert would make of the way some legal professionals are so dependent on iffy technology and even iffier flow charts these days is an interesting question, one to which I think I can guess the answer; but I'm sure he'd have viewed some of the absurdities of present day legal life with the same dry humour that informed his portrayal of legal life in the 1950s. 

I'm equally pleased to say that this is not the only Michael Gilbert novel that will be appearing in the series this year. It will be followed by Death in Captivity and Death Has Deep Roots, two more fine stories, both of which were filmed. The splendidly varied settings and styles of the three books, taken together, demonstrate Gilbert's versatility better than any words of mine can do.

That said, I haven't resisted the opportunity to discuss Gilbert's life and work at some length in each of my introductions to the three books. My approach with these introductions, and with intros to the other books in the series, is to minimise repetition and to try to include fresh information wherever possible. In that endeavour, I benefited from valuable input from Gilbert's daughter, the novelist and radio presenter Harriett Gilbert.

Along with Symons (and, in a different way, Christie and Sayers) Gilbert was also a major influence on my own ambitions as a writer during my formative years as a teenager. He it was whose ability to combine a legal career with a career as a novelist enabled my parents to say - look, it can be done, you can get a "proper job" and still be a writer. So he has quite a bit to answer for. When I got to know him slightly in later life, I found him gracious in the extreme. It was a privilege to talk to and correspond with him, and it was a major highlight of my early years as a crime novelist when he supplied a nice endorsement of my novel Eve of Destruction. (Despite the fact that his legal practice in Lincoln's Inn had little in common with Harry Devlin's in Liverpool!) I like to think he'd be thrilled to see these three excellent novels enjoying a new life in the twenty-first century.


Jamie Sturgeon said...

Martin, these BL Reprints really do work in introducing authors to new readers. I sold a Julian Symons book at the bookfair to someone who’d bought The Colour of Murder and wanted to read more of him - she’d not heard of him before. Anyone who’s not read Michael Gilbert before is in for a treat. I’ve enjoyed reading all of his books except perhaps his last three or four novels which were disappointing.

Val said...

How lovely ! I really enjoyed the BBC radio version broadcast Dec 28th 1987 as part of the Crime at Christmas was really enjoyable.
And now I can read the book too..what a treat.
I hadn't realised other Michael Gilbert work had been on the I better go see what's still available.

Martin Edwards said...

That's great to hear, Jamie. I agree that his last few books weren't quite up to the usual standard, though he continued to write good short stories until close to the end.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Val. To be honest, I've not checked out MG on the radio, so your comment is particularly interesting and helpful.