Michael Gilbert (1912-2006)

146739 (1)Born in Lincolnshire, England, Michael Francis Gilbert graduated in law from the University of London in 1937, shortly after which he first spent some time teaching at a prep-school which was followed by six years serving with the Royal Horse Artillery. During World War II he was captured following service in North Africa and Italy, and his prisoner-of-war experiences later leading to the writing of the acclaimed novel ‘Death in Captivity’ in 1952.

After the war, Gilbert worked as a solicitor in London, but his writing continued throughout his legal career and in addition to novels he wrote stage plays and scripts for radio and television. He is, however, best remembered for his novels, which have been described as witty and meticulously-plotted espionage and police procedural thrillers, but which exemplify realism.

HRF Keating stated that Smallbone Deceased was amongst the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published. “The plot,” wrote Keating, “is in every way as good as those of Agatha Christie at her best: as neatly dovetailed, as inherently complex yet retaining a decent credibility, and as full of cunningly-suggested red herrings.” It featured Chief Inspector Hazlerigg, who went on to appear in later novels and short stories, and another series was built around Patrick Petrella, a London based police constable (later promoted) who was fluent in four languages and had a love for both poetry and fine wine. Other memorable characters around which Gilbert built stories included Calder and Behrens. They are elderly but quite amiable agents, who are nonetheless ruthless and prepared to take on tasks too much at the dirty end of the business for their younger colleagues. They are brought out of retirement periodically upon receiving a bank statement containing a code.

Much of Michael Gilbert’s writing was done on the train as he travelled from home to his office in London: “I always take a latish train to work,” he explained in 1980, “and, of course, I go first class. I have no trouble in writing because I prepare a thorough synopsis beforehand.”. After retirement from the law, however, he nevertheless continued and also reviewed for ‘The Daily Telegraph’, as well as editing ‘The Oxford Book of Legal Anecdotes’.

Gilbert was appointed CBE in 1980. Generally regarded as ‘one of the elder statesmen of the British crime writing fraternity, he was a founder-member of the British Crime Writers’ Association and in 1988 he was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, before receiving the Lifetime ‘Anthony’ Achievement award at the 1990 Boucheron in London.

Michael Gilbert died in 2006, aged ninety three, and was survived by his wife and their two sons and five daughters. (Source: Goodreads)

Mystery Novels: Close Quarters (1947); They Never Looked Inside aka He Didn’t Mind Danger (1948); The Doors Open (1949); Smallbone Deceased (1950); Death Has Deep Roots (1951); Death in Captivity aka The Danger Within (1952); Fear to Tread (1953); Sky High aka The Country-House Burglar(1955); Be Shot for Sixpence [Serialised in US newspapers as High Spy] (1956); Blood and Judgement (1959); After the Fine Weather (1963); The Crack in the Teacup (1966); The Dust and the Heat aka Overdrive (1967); The Etruscan Net aka The Family Tomb (1969); The Body of a Girl (1972); The Ninety-second Tiger (1973); Flash Point (1974); The Night of the Twelfth (1976); The Empty House (1978); Death of a Favourite Girl  aka The Killing of Katie Steelstock (1980); The Final Throw aka U.S. End-Game (1982); The Black Seraphim (1983); The Long Journey Home (1985); Trouble (1987); Paint, Gold and Blood (1989); The Queen Against Karl Mullen (1991); Roller-Coaster (1993); Ring of Terror (1995); Into Battle (1997); and Over and Out (1998).

Further reading:

A brief look at Michael Gilbert by the late Noah Stewart

A Tribute to Michael Gilbert (1912-2006) by Martin Edwards

Michael Gilbert Obituary at The Telegraph

Michael Gilbert obituary, The Guardian


(Facsimile Dust Jacket, Hodder & Stoughton (UK), 1947)

Although it was first published in 1947, Gilbert began this novel in the years immediately before World War II and didn’t finish it until he returned from active duty. Set behind the walls of the residential Close of Melchester Cathedral, it’s a classic British mystery in which a young Scotland Yard detective is asked to interrupt his holiday to find out if the accidental death of Canon Whyte was indeed an accident. (Source: Rue Morgue Press)

Close Quarters is the first novel by the British mystery writer Michael Gilbert. Published in England by Hodder and Stoughton in 1947, it did not appear in the United States until 1963. By then Gilbert’s reputation had been firmly established in both countries and his regular American publisher for many years had been Harper & Brothers. Close Quarters, however, was published by Walker and Company, a less prestigious house. In it we are introduced to Chief Inspector Hazlerigg, who will go on to be a recurring character in a number of Gilbert’s works throughout the next ten years. (Source: Wikipedia).

And Martin Edwards commented on Close Quarters: ‘Conceived in the spirit of Golden Age mystery writing, and still an agreeable read today, this whodunit was set in a fictitious Cathedral close.

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