Michael Gilbert, Charles Williams, and writing what you know (My Bouchercon 2016 panel)
Michael Gilbert was both a lawyer (a solicitor, to be precise), and a prolific and much-honored crime writer. Gilbert's novel Smallbone Deceased (1950), about a dead body that turns up in a solicitors' office, not only wrings a convincing mystery out of the minutiae of conveyancing, but it also includes some delightful jabs at the foibles of law as practised in a Lincoln's Inn solicitors' firm. And that makes of the novel a social comedy in addition to a mystery.
Charles Williams devoted a considerable chunk of his output to crime novels set in the world of sailing and featuring lone-wolf, man-on-the-run sailor protagonists. His titles in this category include Scorpion Reef, Aground, Dead Calm, And the Deep Blue Sea. and The Sailcloth Shroud.
A boat with two or three people aboard (or three at first, then two) makes a great setting for a locked-room mystery. If the ship sails between and outside various nations' territorial waters, one has built-in ingredients of international intrigue. The tension between the different demands of life on ship and life ashore adds another element not present in mysteries set solely on dry land. And the minutiae of shipboard life, like the minutiae of the law in Michael Gilbert's novels, become both a plot element and an exciting new setting for the reader.
Williams served ten years in the Merchant Marine and later worked at a shipyard. Is the picture his novels offer not just of shipboard life, but of life aboard several distinct types of ships authentic? Who knows; authenticity is not fiction's job. But the books sure are convincing. Now, your turn: What are your favorite crime stories in when the author's mastery of given subject makes the book what it is?
© Peter Rozovsky 2016