Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert – A British Library Crime Classic in all senses!

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British Library Crime Classics have done it again! The discovery of a locked room mystery set in a closed community written by an authentic witness to the time, place and setting is a real gift. This novel, set in an Italian Prisoner of War camp in Italy at the time of the British invasion, was written by a man who had been there, as outlined in Martin Edwards’ excellent and informative introduction. This “Second World War Mystery” manages to catch the atmosphere and reality of a large group of men in difficult if not impossible circumstances. Groups and subgroups of the captive British officers make for strange alliances, while the behaviour of the Italian guards and officers is complicated and unpredictable. The urge to escape is one of the overwhelming themes of the book, but not everyone is agreed on the best way, or time, to achieve such an aim. There are times when this does not seem to be a murder mystery, but this is because the authentic details and plot  are written in such depth. The question of “whodunnit” is maintained right until the end, though there is much to distract with red herrings, plots and plans. I recommend this book to all those who appeciate a murder mystery in a terrific historical setting, written at the end of the Golden Age and was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and reveiw this excellent novel.


The novel opens with a discussion between the camp’s officer in charge and the senior British officer, as the situation in Italy becomes more uncertain. There are warnings about escape attempts, that the men should stay in their huts during the evenings.  The various activities are shown, as well as the punishment block. It emerges that there is a man widely supposed to be a traitor in their midst, a man who is possibly supplying the Italians with information about the escape attempts which are always taking place.  Coutoules is generally disliked and many are suspicious of him. The scene changes to Hut C, where the most substantial tunnel is being worked on, in the most secret way possible. As the diggers get further along the tunnel they discover something that is deeply shocking, the body of Coutoules. As the soldiers try to conceal what is presumed to be a murder, the Italians become increasingly suspicious. When the body is surrendered, the Italians begin to take action. An officer called Goyles is asked to investigate among the captive men, and turns amateur detective, trying to weigh up all the available information. This is made nearly impossible as escape attempts are still happening, and the Italians are inflicting their own brand of justice. The mystery remains even when circumstances dramatically change, and this carefully plotted book maintains the tension. 


I found this book a gripping read, with a military humour throughout. It is certainly a great wartime novel of men in challenging circumstances, but it is also a  classic murder mystery which will tax the most dedicated reader in a different way from most books in the genre. Not that this is a cosy book, as there are other deaths and grave danger throughout, but it reads naturally as coming from a writer whose background research must have largely come from experience. This book well deserves its classic status both as a murder mystery novel and a wartime story, and will appear as one of my favourites in this excellent series. 

Recently we went to see the National Theatre production of Small Island at our local cinema, where it was being shown on film. It was incredible. Having read the novel at least twice, and discussed it at two book groups, I was really impressed with this production which brought out the sometimes painful humour and the power of the original. A special feature was the music which really lifted the production, and it was beautifully acted by the entire cast. If you get the chance to see it, it is long, but very good.

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 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?