Friday 19 April 2024

Forgotten Book - The Etruscan Net aka The Family Tomb

Throughout the 1960s, Michael Gilbert published only four novels - although this very industrious writer was, as ever, far from idle during that time, combining his legal career with a wide range of literary projects, including short stories and scripts. What fascinates me is the remarkable range of those four novels. So we have, in chronological order, an action thriller set in Austria, After the Fine Weather, a story about local government corruption in the English provinces, The Crack in the Teacup, and a story about industrial espionage and the fate of a ruthless yet charismatic entrepreneur, The Dust and the Heat, And finally, The Etruscan Net, aka The Family Tomb, which dates from 1968, and which is set in Tuscany and involves the Mafia. What an extraordinarily diverse repertoire.

I've always been a big fan of Gilbert, but because he rang the changes so often, it's inevitable that I like some books more than others. The Crack in the Teacup is an old favourite, but on first reading I had some doubts about the other three books from the 60s and in fact I've only just reread The Etruscan Net after first devouring it as a schoolboy. I must admit that at that time I was a bit disappointed. There are low-key elements in Gilbert's writing which can be frustrating, in particular in the way that he sometimes wraps up a novel. 

These features in this particular book explain why some people, such as the reviewer of this book for Kirkus, found it tedious, although others, such as the critic for The New York Times, were much impressed. As time has passed, I've become more sympathetic to what Gilbert was trying to achieve in books that didn't really do it for me the first time around, perhaps because I didn't know what to expect and didn't fully understand what he was trying to do.

On reading this book again, I enjoyed it more than I did originally. There are lots of typical Gilbert touches - the introduction of lawyers (including Italian lawyers), a potential criminal trial, a damaged protagonist (the gallery owner Robert Broke) and an entertaining confederacy of people who try to help Broke, who has been framed for a killing, off the hook. Gilbert knew Italy well and there are, as ever, various wartime references, some of which probably owe something to his experiences when escaping from a POW camp. Broke more or less disappears from the action in the second half of the book,because he's in prison, and there's a certain diffusion of interest as a result, which I'm bound to admit is not unusual in Gilbert's books. It's not one of his major novels, but it's still an entertaining read.

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