As a committed Michael Gilbert fan, I hurried to borrow The Empty House from the library not long after it was published back in 1978. It was one of his thrillers rather than a police procedural or detective novel and I thought it was rather less memorable than much of his work, though I did rather like the evocative image (at the end of the book) that gives rise to the title.
Having managed to acquire a nice signed copy at long last, I decided it was time to try it again. I'd completely forgotten the story - other than that final scene. And once again I'm afraid I was slightly underwhelmed. What interests me is - why? This is a book written in Gilbert's characteristically lean style, with no wasted words. There are loads of fascinating ingredients. A missing person, who may or may not be dead, a likeable hero (one of the very few loss adjusters in crime fiction, young Peter Manciple), a glamorous femme fatale who is responsible for Peter's sexual initiation, biological warfare, spies, soldiers, action, a good Exmoor setting, a dodgy archaeologist, an apparent suicide, an enigmatic solicitor, a clue concerning property law - yes, you name it, this book has it.
Gilbert famously said that thriller writing is more difficult than writing a detective story. And he did write some very good thrillers. He was sometimes criticised for not focusing more on characterisation, but Peter Manciple is a very well-drawn individual. No, the problem lies elsewhere and concerns the story. Packed with incident though it is, I didn't really care enough about what was going to happen.
Maybe there are just too many ingredients in this book. The deaths of various minor characters don't register as much as they should do, because they are handled in such a matter-of-fact way that the emotional impact is negligible. I felt Gilbert could have made a lot more of them. Even the big plot twist at the end was one I didn't care as much about as I should have done.
Yet Peter's fate did matter to me as a reader, and that's why I remember the scene in the empty house, not all the supposedly more exciting stuff. Because Michael Gilbert was a supremely professional writer with a flair for thrillers (one reviewer, often quoted on his books, said he "understands the thriller theory to perfection") and he was never less than competent. The Empty House is decent entertainment but it still feels to me like a book which isn't quite the sum of its many parts.