Thursday, 6 March 2008

Stay of Execution

Edward D. Hoch, who died in January, was the most prolific writer of short mystery stories. I’m not sure who is the British author who has published most short mysteries, but Michael Gilbert must certainly be a contender. His output in the short form even justified the publication of a useful bibliography by Barry Pike; it covers stories which appeared up to 1997, and was published as a supplement to Geoff Bradley’s CADS.

Opinions vary as to which of Gilbert’s short story collections was the best. Many would choose Game Without Rules, his first gathering of spy stories featuring Calder and Behrens. Ellery Queen, no mean judge, ranked this book alongside Somerset Maugham’s classic Ashenden.

My own favourite is Stay of Execution, a collection of varied stores of legal practice that is at least as successful as another fine book, Best Detective Stories of Cyril Hare – which happened to be edited by Michael Gilbert, not long after Hare’s sadly premature death. There are some terrific twists in the stories, as well as a good deal of humour. The very short ‘Back on the Shelf’ is a gem.

In his later years, Gilbert turned out a number of first rate stories – he kindly allowed me to include the excellent ‘Judith’ in an anthology called Mysterious Pleasures – and in addition published collections of stories he’d written many years earlier, featuring his London detective Patrick Petrella. There was a sound collection featuring a lawyer called Jonas Pickett, Anything for a Quiet Life, and Even Murderers Take Holidays was published less than a year ago. Crippen and Landru have published two more collections, and a third is on the way. The fact that there is clearly a market for these books, even though many of the stories in them date back to the 1950s, is a tribute to Michael Gilbert’s gifts. As a story-teller, he was outstanding.

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