Of the various detective writers unearthed and reprinted by the British Library Crime Classics series, I have thus far found Michael Gilbert to be one of the most reliable. His books Death in Captivity, set in an Italian POW camp, and Smallbone Deceased, in essence a somewhat comic legal thriller, were both excellent, and very different from one another. My experience of crime writers of the day has often been that, unless they were Agatha Christie or DL Sayers, they found a formula that worked and stuck to it through thick and thin. This leads to books produced in the 50s feeling dated, because the author was ignoring all the societal changes that had happened since the 30s. In contrast, Death Has Deep Roots is different again from the other novels I’ve read by Gilbert. It’s a mixture of courtroom drama, conventional mystery, and a touch of thriller, interwoven in alternating chapters, and it kept me gripped throughout.
Gilbert is great at setting a scene, and this book is no different. It opens with the trial of Victoria Lamartine, a former French Resistance worker, accused of the murder of her supposed lover Major Thoseby. This in itself is no different to plenty of other novels of the time. In fact, to start with, it’s quite similar to Sayers’ Strong Poison and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out Gilbert was a fan. However, the opening scenes don’t go over the evidence or incorporate any of the key characters. Instead, we are treated to the spectators in the courtroom ghoulishly talking about the trial like a sports game. It’s rather grim humour, used to great effect. One of the bit characters has to be reminded not to bring a camera into the court – it’s his first murder trial and he didn’t know any better until a kindly bystander advises him to put it away.
“Don’t mention it,” said Mr Ruby. “I go to a lot of these criminal trials. In fact, I should describe myself as rather a student of the forensic science. Now this one should be particularly interesting. There’s no doubt, I think, that the girl’s guilty – but with Claudian Summers prosecuting and Poynter for the defence – they’re both Silks, of course – I think we shall see some great cut and thrust.”
“Yes, yes, I suppose we shall,” agreed the young man. Indeed his eyes were already alight, as one who waits to hear a geste or a tale of ancient chivalry. “Both KCs, you say?”
“Yes,” said Mr Ruby. “You’d expect senior Treasury Counsel or a leader in a capital case. But Poynter’s a magician with a jury.”
Death has Deep Roots is technically the fifth book in the Inspector Hazelrigg series (meaning I can count it for the series square on my indie challenge), but this is not a police procedural and Hazelrigg hardly features. Instead, in the opening scenes, Lamartine jettisons her previous defence lawyer on the grounds that he wants her to plead guilty and play the “poor little wronged woman” card to get off lightly. She wants a lawyer who actually believes in her innocence and will build a defence on those grounds instead. She turns to Markby, Wragg, and Rumbold, Solicitors. I’m not sure if these are recurring Gilbert characters, but I have not personally encountered them. It’s the sort of small firm “in which all the partners could, and quite often did, fill out Inland Revenue Affadavits all by themselves”. Not being a criminal defence firm, they ask publican Angus McCann to start an informal investigation in the UK. I was never sure how exactly McCann was connected to the company or why they asked him to investigate – perhaps it wasn’t explained, or perhaps I just missed it – but he is invaluable, because he knows which pubs are entangled in London’s seedy underbelly. While McCann sets out across England to collect clues and try to unravel the mystery from that angle, Noel Anthony Pontarlier Rumbold (“Nap”) heads over to France. His job, as the most junior member in his father’s firm, is to work out what role Thoseby’s work in the French Resistance played in his murder. And in the courtroom, the case progresses, with hastily hired defence lawyer Macrea picking holes in the evidence. We get all three stories working together, and I really enjoyed how well they were woven in with one another.
The glimpse at the French Resistance just a few years after the end of the war was fascinating to me. On the face of it, it seems strange for this novel to be subtitled “A Second World War Mystery”. After all, it was published in 1951 and set at around the same time. However, as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that everyone’s experiences in the war are continuing to affect their behaviour years later – the deep roots of the title. This isn’t just true for Victoria and Major Thoseby, but absolutely everyone. As Nap travels around France, he keeps thinking back to his own experiences during the war – we never entirely find out what these were, but he speaks excellent French and seems to have a good working knowledge of the Resistance. As this book portrays it, almost all rural French people were involved in helping the Resistance to a greater or lesser extent unless they were actually collaborators. People donated goods or money or space when approached, without asking questions and certainly without getting answers. This slots in with the image of the French Resistance I gained from A Woman of No Importance – that it was a huge collaborative effort that nearly everyone was in on, even if there were relatively few official resistance personnel. Gilbert conveys a lot of respect for the ordinary people who supported the Maquis, which was interesting and also just nice to read.
In terms of characterisation – it’s rarely the strongest element of Golden Age detective stories, and it isn’t here, but Gilbert doesn’t neglect it completely. Some effort is made to flesh out McCann’s and Nap’s backstories, all connected to the war. Not a great deal of information is disclosed, but just enough to keep the characters distinguishable. Sadly Victoria herself is a largely flat character – we are meant to buy her believability because all the men around her trust her implicitly – but we do get a few other interesting female characters. Saying too much about any of them might venture into spoiler territory, but I think he does a better job overall with his female characters than most of his male contemporaries. My only real characterisation bug – and perhaps it was a feature, who knows? – was that he includes multiple characters whose last name is Marquis, which in a book about the Maquis seems either intentionally or unintentionally confusing. I had to keep rereading sentences to see who he meant.
Incidentally, although I really love the BL covers, this pulpy early American edition (with very limited connection to the story) is a true delight.
If you are someone who loves the crime writing of this time purely as puzzle-solving, this might not be the book for you. Gilbert does wrap things up with a satisfying conclusion, but it is closer to being a thriller than a traditional puzzle mystery. About 25 pages from the end, I was still wondering how he was going to bring it all together, and for my money it was a bit rushed. If I had to guess, I’d say that Gilbert was most interested in the courtroom drama part of the novel, with the piecing together of clues a distant third after the thriller components. I can never solve the puzzle in a crime mystery anyway, and am reading for the process rather than to try and “beat” the detective, so it didn’t bother me at all. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and recommend it – with the above caveat – wholeheartedly.
Five years after WWII is over and people are still affected by it. I keep wondering how long we will be affected by COVID-19. Surely there will be people whose health is never the same again, but the virus will plague us for a long time, I think. I read a book about the 1918 flu and learned that people who were small children and babies during the pandemic were not as affected by it as babies who were in utero during the height of the pandemic. Those children went on to earn less money, be less educated, — basically, all the things you don’t want for your children. I didn’t understand what made a difference for those born during the pandemic vs. those who were babies, though.
I keep thinking about this as well. It’s impossible to know what the long-term fallout of the pandemic will be. I think maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to post-war novels at the moment – they aren’t as close to our situation as the 1918 flu (which I think would be too stressful for me to read about right now) but they are still about recovering after a huge global crisis.
I’ve loved meeting Michael Gilbert via the British Library too. This was my least favourite of the three they’ve done so far, but that still puts it way ahead of most of the competition. As you point out, one of the nice things about him is the variety of styles he uses – no formula here! I hope they bring out more of his stuff, since I never seem to have time to read anything from other publishers these days… 😀
Yes, I also really hope they bring out some more of his stuff – I gave Death in Captivity to my mum for Christmas last year even though she much prefers contemporary police procedurals/thrillers to Golden Age detective stories, and she really loved it, which I think speaks to how well his books have aged.