Friday 4 June 2021

Forgotten Book - The Dust and the Heat, aka Overdrive

The Dust and the Heat by Michael Gilbert is a fascinating thriller - and yet it has hardly ever been discussed. I'm not sure why. I've now read it three times and each time I enjoy it more, and get a better handle on what Gilbert was trying to do in this unusual story. Like The Crack in the Teacup, it's quite close to mainstream fiction in some ways, but it's entertaining from start to finish.

In saying this, I realise that the story may not be to every taste. At one level, it's an account of a long-running corporate vendetta involving industrial espionage, that ends up in a civil court case. Gilbert's legal expertise is much in evidence - early in the story there is a sub-plot involving rights of way, something you don't find in Dick Francis, say, or Len Deighton - and it may be that my own legal interests bias me in favour of Gilbert's clever and original use of (relatively) recondite material.

But even if that is the case, there is much for any reader to savour here in the character study of a ruthless entrepreneur. Oliver Nugent proves to be a formidable and dangerous man of war, and equally menacing in peacetime when he's wearing a suit. At first, you may think that there is something heroic about him, but Gilbert is scrupulous in showing the dangers into which Nugent's single-minded win-at-all-costs philosophy leads him. My guess is that Gilbert was influenced in his portrayal by his own experience of business life, though I'm sure he was far too smart to base the character on a single recognisable individual.

The book begins with a postscript, and although the action is spread over years, the writing is taut and engaging. We don't learn enough, perhaps, about Nugent's German wife, despite her connection with a key character who lurks in the background throughout, but as usual with Gilbert, most of the minor characters are sketched with verve as well as economy. Again, as is common with Gilbert, the finale is rather low-key. This is a technique of his which used to puzzle me, but now I can see more merit in it. And there is plenty of action, though he doesn't dwell on the various acts of violence.

There is quite a bit in the story about advertising, with nice satire of competive advertising. One thing is for sure: Gilbert was deeply, deeply sceptical about advertising. When, later in his life, I got to know him, he wrote engagingly to me on this subject; because I was a lawyer of a younger generation, who always believed that it was inevitable and right in the modern era that solicitors would be allowed to advertise, I didn't share his views, but there was undoubtedly some force in his reservations. He was a wise man as well as a very good writer.


Anonymous said...

An excellent book from one of my favourite crime writers. I also found him very helpful when I was writing an article about him for Book and Magazine Collector (almost 30 years ago now). Martyn

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Martyn. I'm not sure why such a good book is so little-known.