Death has Deep Roots by Michael Gilbert – a British Library Crime Classic of the Second World War and beyond

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A British Library Crime Classic which is subtitled “A Second World War Mystery” is actually set after that conflict, as several of the characters are desperately looking back to find the truth behind a more recent murder.This is a dramatic novel which uses the device of a murder trial to frame and inform much of the action; a woman stands liable to the death penalty unless her legal team can find out what really occurred in this sealed unit mystery. As the correct legal niceties are exercised in the court as a result of Gilbert’s own considerable expertise and experience, a thriller plot unrolls as Nap, solicitor and inexperienced amateur detective hunts through France for the vital clues that will help to establish identities and motives. This is a murder which indeed has deep roots in an occupation and resistance which has spilt into the narrow streets of London several years later. In his typically informative introduction Martin Edwards not only establishes Gilbert’s unique knowledge of the forms and background to this excellent novel, but also the vital difference between a thriller and a murder mystery which he seems to combine so effortlessly. I was so pleased to be given the opportunity to read and review this excellent addition to the British Library set.

 

As the Central Criminal Court fills for the trial of Mademoiselle Victoria Lamartine, there is much eager anticipation of a spectacle. There is to be a surprise, however, as a different lawyer steps up for her defence. The judge agrees to move the case to the end of his list in order to allow a different emphasis to be given to the facts and a different plea to be entered, and thus eight days are granted for investigations into a matter which necessitates no little danger for those who undertake to find out more. As  firm of solicitors is instructed who are more used to steady questions of law than murder trials, a young lawyer meets with the young woman and begins to assemble the facts. The roots of the matter surround the activities of landowners, farmers and crucially resistance fighters in Occupied France. If it can be proved that Lamartine had motive for the killing of Major Eric Thoseby, the case against her seems likely to be proved.It is this aspect of the case that Nap must go and investigate, which proves to be no light matter as for some, the brutality of war is not just a memory. Happily he has some help, even if that seems very suspicious. Investigations into the death of Thoseby in a small London hotel seem safer, until a brutal bar room brawl leaves even the most experienced of investigators nursing wounds. Much hinges on the ability of a murderer to gain access to a hotel room which was seemingly under surveillance at all times. Also the wandering eye of a young man which may have fixed on several women could provide an alternative explanation for many events, if only he can be found as time ticks past.

 

This is a complex yet satisfactorily explained book which combines the tension of a thriller with the clever courtroom drama of a true master of the art. The actual murder which seems impossible for anyone else to have committed is relatively straightforward, but the background and explanations are complex. As famous lawyer Macrea pulls out all the stops to defend his client, I was intrigued as to how he could convince the jury to try to understand how a woman who had survived capture by the Gestapo was innocent of brutal and effective violence. It was good to read a novel in which women were active participants and not just hapless victims or extra witnesses,and all things considered this is a well balanced book. As part of an excellent series of  Michael Gilbert books this is an excellent book, and a satisfactory read on many levels.

 

Later today I am due in church to take part in a service which contains Faure’s Requiem. It is going to be a big sing! It will be especially powerful as I am told that Faure lived in Paris and therefore would have known Notre Dame well. Enjoy is probably the wrong word, but I am sure it will be a memorable event.

Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert – a London Mystery from British Library Crime Classics

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Described as a masterpiece in older reviews, there is no doubt that this novel scores on so many points; a fascinating plot containing enough red herrings for any reader, a thoroughly established setting with its routines and quirks, and an extremely satisfying cast of characters, all well drawn  and distinctly individual. A book which reveals the writer’s own knowledge of working in legal offices; an amateur detective with an unusual trait that makes him a fantastic sleuth and operative, and the discovery of a body which almost defies belief in its audacity. This is a beautifully worked out book written with an understated and elegant style. I was very impressed and grateful to receive a copy of this book from the British Library Crime Classics series, as it is indeed an excellent read dating from 1950, and beautifully republished.

The opening section of the book serves as a clever introduction to a group of solicitors’ firms “the Gordon Selfridge of solicitors, different departments to suit all tastes and purses”. The newest entrant to this firm, Henry Bohun, is a much qualified individual who seems to have finally settled on a career in the law, together with his nocturnal activities that he pursues with a laudable dedication and intelligent bravery. As he observes the individuals around him, he realises that there are some very varied and interesting characters assembled, who will provide many avenues of investigation in due course. Not that this book is told exclusively from his point of view; indeed the interchangeability of his names (Henry or Bohun) can be a little confusing. When the body of a sort of client is discovered in a special deed box, sealed and only slightly decomposed, many questions emerge. Why is he in a box only accessible to a now deceased senior partner? Is the significance of that particular box vitally important? Why should anyone trouble to kill a man of limited means and influence? When could such a crime and concealment be effected? When another killing occurs, who has an alibi when the London Transport system has been affected by a general power cut? With so many clues, motives, accountancy queries and general observations on the minutely organised offices of Horniman, Birley and Craine, it is a fortunate thing that the investigation is in the capable and thoughtful hands of Chief Inspector Hazelerigg, who at once sees the whole picture, while suffering some doubts. With the painstaking efforts of Sergeant Plumptree who combines careful determination with the unthreatening appearance of someone who invites information, this is a delightfully complex but perfectly understandable novel.

This book shows all the best strands of a late Golden Age classic, and Gilbert’s thoughtful, often amusing and always entertaining novel is a truly wonderful read. As always, Martin Edwards introduction sets up the book well while giving a valuable context to this particular novel within Gilbert’s considerable output and the current developments in crime writing. This is a book for anyone interested in the inventive crime writing of the twentieth century, the legal establishment and a well – constructed, convincing exploration of motives and activities of those whose business is the law, but who are also essentially human.

 

This book is excellent on legal offices of the 1940s and 1950s but a far more contemporary view of similar establishments is in Harriet Tyce’s “Blood Orange” which I have also reviewed here  https://northernreader.wordpress.com/2019/03/01/blood-orange-by-harriet-tyce-a-contemporary-view-of-london-life-in-law-and-relationships/ While this is a thriller rather more than a whodunnit, I think the most obvious difference is the role of women – from secretaries to lawyers! Not that Gilbert dismisses women, but they do not feature in such detail. Have you read either or both books?