Monday 16 February 2009

Michael Gilbert

I’ve mentioned Michael Gilbert a few times in this blog, and one of his titles is my ‘forgotten book’ this coming Friday. He’s a writer whom I came across in my teens. My parents liked his books and encouraged me to read him.

They had an ulterior motive, actually. The biographical note in the Gilbert books that Hodder published in those days explained that Gilbert combined a career as a solicitor with his crime writing. He achieved a good deal of success in both fields (he was Raymond Chandler’s solicitor in England, incidentally and a good friend of the great man). At this time my parents were unnerved by my stated ambition to become a crime writer, and naturally wanted me to have a ‘proper job’. When I proved resistant to this, they pointed to Michael Gilbert as an example of someone who wore both hats.

Duly persuaded, I studied law and ultimately became a solicitor. I remained a firm fan of Michael Gilbert’s books and during the 1980s, I persuaded a legal magazine to allow me to write an article about his work. This gave me the chance to interview a man who was something of a hero. I talked to him at length on the telephone and found him as urbane and likeable as his books. He was, too, remarkably and genuinely modest, a man who had spent most of his career in a world where solicitors were not allowed to advertise and in grave trouble if they did so surreptitiously.

After that, we spoke again on various occasions. He encouraged my own writing and was kind enough to provide an extremely positive quote for Eve of Destruction (something he seldom, if ever, did for other writers, and something of which I am rather proud). In later years he allowed me to reprint some of his classic short stories for CWA anthologies and shared with me his disappointment at the lack of critical attention given to The Queen against Karl Mullen, one of his last books, and quite splendid. The pity was that, by the time the novel came out, Michael Gilbert was no longer truly fashionable. Even Hodder, to whom he had long been faithful, dropped him. He had won much acclaim, including the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger, but he is associated primarily with the post-war era, in which his most famous whodunit, Smallbone Deceased, is set. Yet he wrote with great accomplishment for half a century.

One other thing about Michael Gilbert. He had a great deal of insight into the crime genre in all its forms. As well as many novels and countless short stories, he wrote with success for both tv and stage, and Death in Captivity , Danger Within, was enjoyably filmed by Don Chaffey. He was a friend and admirer of Cyril Hare, and edited a posthumous collection of Hare’s best short stories. He wrote intelligently about the work of other writers, and thereby introduced me to such notable authors as Henry Wade and Christianna Brand.

Oh, and he and his wife found time to produce seven children, one of whom also became a successful writer. Quite a man.


Uriah Robinson said...

An absolutely fascinating post. I had no idea that Michael Gilbert was Raymond Chandler's solicitor that is definitely one for a pub quiz. Your mention of those days when professionals were not allowed to advertise reminds me of the dentist colleague who was a motor racing driver in his "spare time" and had a crash. The local papers reported his hands had been burnt and the GDC sent him a letter with a warning that he was advertising.
A very different world.

Anonymous said...

Martin, I am too prone to select 18th/19th century novels... what got you hooked on crime?

Martin Edwards said...

Uriah - I agree. I think Michael wasn't convinced all the changes were for the better.
Okathleen - it all began for me at Great Budworth, a village you probably know (near Northwich!) when I was nine years old and saw the world film premiere of Murder Most Foul - from that moment I was hooked on crime!

Dorte H said...

When I read the first few lines, I thought your parents ENCOURAGED you to become a crime fiction writer - so I had to read on :)
Fine post about you and Gilbert.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I loved this post, Martin. So nice that it worked out that you admired and like him even more when you met him rather than resenting the part he played in making you enter the legal profession. So many attorneys seem unhappy with their fate.

Jodie Robson said...

I like Michael Gilbert's writing very much, but unfortunately I don't happen across many of them in second hand bookshops. Yes, I know I could get them on the internet, but I'm trying very hard to curb my addiction! Life is hard.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these comments, which encourage me to say more about Michael Gilbert at a future date.
Geranium Cat, I know what you mean about the need to curb one's addiction. But I think that once you sample it, you will find the smooth enjoyability of Gilbert's writing hard to resist.

seana graham said...

I love Cyril Hare, and I have picked up a lot of used Michael Gilberts over time, but I think they are currently sitting in my storage unit. Nice to know that my intuitions were correct, even if I haven't gotten to them yet!