Sunday, July 31, 2016

My Bouchercon 2016 panel: Michael Gilbert, plus bipartisan political vacuousness

A piece of gaseous conservative slogan-mongering in the National Review brought to mind Michael Gilbert's taking the piss out of a similar piece of gaseous liberal slogan mongering in his 1965 story "The Spoilers."  As a nonpartisan break from campaign-season brain rot, here's a post about Gilbert and politics.
Thc occasional politically tinged passages that work their way into Michael Gilbert's stories about Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens are not always the most subtle, the hyperbole put in the mouths of young, speechifying men of leftish inclination especially wince-making (“Freedom,” said Tabor. “You’re prepared to accept inefficiency, selfishness, slackness, lack of purpose, timidity and greed – provided you have on the other side of the scales a fictitious thing called freedom.”).

But the books appeared in an unsubtle time (1966 and 1967) at least as prone to lunatic hyperbole as political discussion is now. Besides, politics and ideology are small presences in these tightly plotted, delightfully told stories. And, since today's readers want positive news, I thought I'd share a jab as pertinent and just as delicious today it was in the mid-1960s. It's from "The Spoilers," which appears in the collection Games Without Rules:
“`We’re getting so security-minded,' said Miss Nicholson, `that we might as well be living in a totalitarian state, under the control of the Gestapo.'

“Miss Nicholson, who was an intellectual liberal, often said things like this in letters to the Press and at public meetings, possibly because she had never lived in a totalitarian state and had no experience of the Gestapo."
Now, good readers, tell me your favorite political jabs from crime stories. Be a good sport, and tell me especially about lines with whose point of view you may disagree.
As noted above, ideology does not bulk large in these stories. The powers against whom Calder, Behrens, and their fellow intelligence officers work are referred to far more often simply as Russia or China than as communists or commies, never, that I can recall, as "evil" or "Rooskies" and only once as "reds." More typical are non-ideological barbs such as this, from "The Spoilers":
"Mr. Calder, considering the matter, was inclined to agree. He knew that in certain branches of the Security Services, sexual irregularity was considered a good deal worse than crime and nearly as bad as ideological deviation."
or jabs at features of English life that Gilbert probably wished were in a higher state than they were. From "The Cat Crackers":
“`Splendid,” said the professor. `We will sit all afternoon and talk.'

“`Not in an English pub, you won’t,' said Tabor."
or this, from "The Headmaster," which sounds more than a bit like P.G. Wodehouse:
"The Hambone Club in Carver Street is the offspring of that eccentric aristocrat, Sir Rawnsley Clayton. Having been turned out of the Athenaeum for giving dinner there to a troupe of clowns, he had founded it as a place where he could meet his more bohemian acquaintances. It was still much used by actors and writers, but had acquired a solid addition of politicians who found the Carlton too stuffy and of soldiers who found the Senior too exclusive."
Gilbert, an Englishman who died in 2006, was both a Cartier Diamond Dagger winner and a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master.  Here's Martin Edwards on Gilbert. The highest compliment of all, however, and the most pertinent to this post, may come from Joe Gores, who wrote:
"A critic once remarked that Maugham's Ashenden is the finest collection of espionage fiction ever written. That critic is wrong. The honor goes to Michael Gilbert's Game Without Rules, and to its twelve-story sequel, Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens."
Martin Edwards accepts
his 2016 Best Critical/
Biographical Edgar
Award for The Golden
Age of Murder
. Photo
by Peter Rozovsky.
Martin Edwards will discuss Michael Gilbert as part of a panel I'll moderate at Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans in September. The panel is called "From Hank to Hendrix: Beyond Chandler and Hammett: Lesser Known Writers of the Pulp and Paperback Original Eras," and it happens at 9 a.m., Thursday, Sept. 15, at the Marriott, 555 Canal St., New Orleans. The room is LaGalleries 1. See you there.

See the compete Bouchercon panel schedule at!schedule/c8k7

© Peter Rozovsky 2014, 2016

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Blogger RT said...

This is an ongoing favorite: Agatha Christie, not intending irony, throughout her novels has much to say about conservative versus liberal ideas in England. In other words, she cannot escape her gentrified class biases. American novelists, as far as I know, do not quite involve themselves intentionally and ironically in political class distinctions. But I could be wrong.

August 16, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

Postscript.....but British class awareness was never duplicated in America....or was it? After all, my blue color roots remind me often that distinctions do exist....Peter, do those class distinctions show up in u.s. crime fiction?

August 16, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

Postscript: A Le Carre is so over-the-top in his liberal spin that conservatives in his novels come off as foolish demons. Poor Le Carre, he just cannot help himself.

August 16, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I hesitated about putting up this post because the politics are take second place to entertainment in these stories. Gilbert, by the way, did not go to Oxford or Cambridge. He was educated at the University of London. What this means for his class and political leanings, I don't know. I have read that when he was a solicitor, his clients included the Conservative Party--and Raymond Chandler.

I found the speeches he put the mouths of his young firebrands notable not for their politics, but for their cartoonishness. (One pacifist organization is called the Peaceful People.)

Perhaps the crack I quoted about the Gestapo rings truer because Gilbert was a prisoner of war during World War II, though of the Italians rather than the Germans.

August 16, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm not sure the extent to which class and politics are intertwined in British life and fiction. Another story in one of these collections makes it a point to note, fro example, that a leftist student agitator is the daughter of a property millionaire.

August 16, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe Gilbert is the anti-Le Carre with respect to politics. Based on the small portion of his output represented in the Calder and Behrens stories, I'd say Gilbert was better off avoiding politics. Those liberals and leftists generally don't come close to rising above caricature. But I recommend the stories highly. Joe Gores was right about them. I also plan to read more of Gilbert.

August 16, 2014  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

May I just remind some readers that Gilbert was awarded the Cartier Diamond Dagger, among other laurels. Indeed, he was a Founder-Member of the British CWA. He was educated at Blundell's, a Public School in the British sense. That he went there and to London doesn't mean much at all. Remember the Cambridge Five?? Also, I suspect that in his day -- he lived to be 93 -- Oxbridge may not have had law schools. One other thing that really needs to be said is that his Smallbone Deceased is his masterpiece, included by H.R.F. Keating in his 100 Best. I shouldn't waste time looking for Gilbert's politics in his writings. In sharp contrast to, say, Rendell and, much moreso, Phyllis James, he said that he did not aim to provide a "moral map" in his books, but purely to entertain.

But I want to say something of the works of Robert Barnard. He did go to Oxford, then a Ph.D from Bergen, an academic for many years, in that time producing three literary studies. This is a bit tricky in these days, but politically I have no doubt that he was, to use an exportable term, a social democrat; in England, between the Labour and Conservative parties, and that may be significant. See the list below.

If you want very fine mysteries with deadly but often hilarious satire, many of his books are for you. I should mention that his later books took a different turn and I was not so happy with them, but those I am referring to here are A+. Barnard also was much-garnered. For those seeking British works with political/social/economic, etc. observation, it doesn't get any better -- absolutely spot-on. I find it hard to believe US readers won't be able to find American parallels.

A Little Local Murder (middle-class mayhem)
Blood Brotherhood (Church)
Mother's Boys (working-class mayhem)
Political Suicide
Scandal in Belgravia
Masters of the House
A Murder in Mayfair
Unholy Dying (Back to the Church)
School for Murder (Re the sort of school Barnard, Gilbert and I went to)
Corpse in a Gilded Cage
Fete Fatale (The Middle Class again)
Death of a Princess

Barnard also had a bash at the literary world: The Missing Bronte; Death in Deep Purple (Romance novelists); and, of course, Death of a Mystery Writer. And also the opera world, which he knew well: Death on the High C's.

The easiest way to find alternative titles used in the US is via FantasticFiction.

He died just last year.

August 16, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the recommendations, and welcome back. I remember the great outpouring after Barnard died.

I haven't read him, either. I'm a latecomer to English traditional mysteries, coming to them mainly in the form of Colin Watson, who I think loved the form even as he made fun of it. And I don't know I'd have discovered Michael Gilbert if not for Joe Gores' praise.

Apropos the remark about entertaining, one of the link I included in the post mentions his puzzlement at criticism from Julian Symons and H.R.F. Keating that Gilbert would have been greater had he tried harder to enlighten rather than entertain his readers. The Calder and Behrens stories are among the most entertaining I have read. Perhaps the clunkiness of some of the examples I mention reflect what happened when his decided to follow Keating's and Symons' advice.

August 16, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think I'll start with Political Suicide and
A Murder in Mayfair, since I liked The Thick of It so much.

August 16, 2014  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...


Let me give a shout out to the now almost completely unknown writer Stephen Gilbert

who had a very interesting and eclectic career.


Le Carre has been unhinged for some time but still gets good reviews because of his past glories. The most recent one however wasnt terrible. My review here:

August 16, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, here’s a quick link to that review, worth reading even one has not read the novel or does not plan to do so. My guess is that Michael Gilbert’s political sallies fall flat because his heart isn’t in it—he just wants to entertain readers, and, by God, he does a terrific job of doing it. I suspect Le Carre is up to something quite different.

August 16, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, and thanks on Stephen Gilbert.

August 16, 2014  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

It's cheating, perhaps, to quote Robert Barnard's POLITICAL SUICIDE, because it's set in a political milieu, but I'm still going to. There are lots of great jabs, but one brief enough to quote here is:

“Early on in his stint as a junior minister, a newspaper had called him 'the thinking man’s Tory,' and the label had stuck, possibly because there was so little competition.”

August 17, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kelly, here's another in the same vein.

“Well, I suppose, looking around at all the people who have been dropped, no— not very much . They tend to stay dropped. Most of them start giving more and more of their time to the City—directorships in big companies, and so on. Jim took up animals. Really, it was awfully un-Conservative.

“Conservation isn’t a Conservative thing, then?”

Oddly enough, I'm not sure how well I like the ceaseless wisecracking. My favorite part of the above is the bit about most dropped ministers taking up directorships. That's the kind of sharp jab I like. It remains to be seen if Barnard can build a compelling story around the wisecracks.

You may remember that Mrs. Partridge, the victim's widow, is an absolutely farcical portrayal of the callous, not-really-grieving widow. So, when Sutcliffe thinks after meeting her:

"...what a very unsatisfactory interview this had been, without being able quite to pin down in his own mind the reasons for his dissatisfaction. But one thing was certain: Mrs Partridge had not been able to put on even a pantomime of sorrow or regret."

I think, without being quite able to pin down the reason for his dissatisfaction? Could Sutcliffe really be that dim? But Sutcliffe can't be intended as a comically dim figure, because such a portrayal would be jarring subtle compared to the other characters.

August 17, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

Oddly enough, I just finished a Robert Barnard novel, which was one Martin Edwards had written up fairly recently--Death in a Cold Climate, which is set in Tromso, Norway, where at least at that time, Barnard was teaching English. One of the funniest lines in the book, in fact, happens to be in the Author's Notes:

"...though I have been fairly faithful to the geographical facts regarding Tromsø, the characters are entirely fictitious: the policemen are not Tromsø policemen, the students are not Tromsø students, and above all, the Professor of English is not Tromsø's Professor of English."

As I was reading this book, I thought I should stock up on more older British mysteries at the used book store, and one of them was Michael Gilbert's Fear to Tread. I'll have to grab up some more next time I'm downtown, as I can see I will like his style.

Here's Edwards' review on Death in a Cold Climate. Has some nice photos of the city.

August 17, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, you may have noticed that I linked to Martin Edwards' discussion of Michael Gilbert. Edwards is my go-to guy it traditional British mysteries. You'll likely know that I don't object to a bit of humor with my crime fiction. It remains to be seen what I think of Barnard's brand.

He wrote quite a number of books, and I don't know hot typical this broad streak of farce is of his work.

August 17, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

I did notice the Gilbert link. I'll check out his thoughts once I get around to this one. I have long been a fan of British mysteries, but I have learned of quite a few from Martin's blog over time too. Henry Wade was someone I learned of through that channel most recently. Picked up another one of his too.

August 17, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's another name for me to look for. It's odd to think that I an coming so late to such a traditional form. Perhaps I can bring some fresh perspective to the discussion, or else make some cringe-makingly obvious pronouncements.

August 17, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

I doubt the last would be true, Peter.

August 17, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, one must maintain a discreet silence in the presence of one's betters, you see.

August 17, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

Someone should have mentioned that to me a long time ago. Oh well, too late now.

August 17, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wrote very early on, maybe in the first Detectives Beyond Borders post, that British mysteries felt too close to what I knew already for me to write about them in a blog beyond borders. But I might be able to read them with more detachment now.

August 17, 2014  
Anonymous Mary Beth said...

This lovely blog is playing havoc with my bucket list. I am going to have to live long enough to make Methuselah look like an adolescent in order to read everything on my list.
However, in searching for Mr. Gilbert, I did find this web site that I would like to share if there is someone else who likes to read some books in the sequence they were written and the names the author used to write different series.

August 17, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, now you make me blush. Many thanks for the kind words.

Here is the Stop. You’re Killing Me link in clickable form: And here’s the sites’s Michael Gilbert link.

August 17, 2014  

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