Sunday, August 21, 2016

Michael Gilbert, Charles Williams, and writing what you know (My Bouchercon 2016 panel)

The estimable Laura Lippman once said that the old advice to write what you know had served her poorly in one of her own embryonic, excessively autobiographical early efforts. "Write what you know," Lippman said, is "well-intentioned, but it's poorly put. [Better to] write what you want to know about."

But knowledge, wielded with discretion and with the aim of telling a good story always in mind, can serve crime writers well. 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.

Back in America, that great writer of paperback originals (and some hardbacks, too, I think) 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?
Martin Edwards will discuss Michael Gilbert and Eric Beetner will say a few words about Charles Williams on a panel I'll moderate at Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans next month. 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. The Fantastic Fiction Web site includes bibliographies for both Michael Gilbert and Charles Williams.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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