It could easily be argued that Michael Gilbert was one of the greatest crime fiction writers of the twentieth century. He belongs to a very select group of writers who have been named Grandmaster by the Mystery Writers of America, awarded a Diamond Dagger for career accomplishments by the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain and honored for his lifetime achievement at Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention. Yet in 2007, less than a year after his death on February 8, 2006, at the age of 93, only one of his more than forty books—and a short story collection at that—was in print in the United States. Why this is should be so tells us more about the lamentable state of publishing today than it does about Gilbert’s talent and his immense contribution to the genre.
Some critics have argued that Gilbert would have done better to stick with just one form of the crime novel, suggesting that variety is not the surest path to commercial success. The principle of same book, just a little bit different, has kept many lesser talents at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Instead, Gilbert tackled virtually every aspect of the genre: classic detective stories, police procedurals, spy novels, adventure stories and courtroom dramas. There was nary a dud in the lot and several that probably will be read with pleasure a hundred years from now. Nor did he restrict himself to the novel. In a day and age when the short story has fallen into disfavor, he was a master of the form. One early collection, Game Without Rules, was named by Ellery Queen as one of the most important mystery short story collections of all time. These droll stories featuring those cutthroat but always gentlemanly spies Calder and Behrens were a hit on British and American television several decades later.
Gilbert’s first book, Close Quarters, set in the summer of 1937, was begun in 1938 while he was a schoolmaster in Salisbury, and the Melchester Cathedral of the book is obviously patterned after Salisbury Cathedral, albeit a considerably smaller version. War interrupted both Gilbert’s teaching and fledgling writing careers. While serving with the Royal Horse Artillery in North Africa and Europe, Gilbert was captured and spent part of the war in an Italian prisoner of war camp, a setting he used in one of this most successful novels, 1952’s The Danger Within (published in England as Death in Captivity). It was filmed in 1958 and starred Richard Todd, Michael Wilding and Richard Attenborough.
Close Quarters was finally published in 1947. Years later Gilbert complained that he found the book somewhat “cluttered.” And while it’s true that this leisurely apprentice effort lacks some of the subtle control found in his subsequent books, many critics begged to differ with this judgment, including National Book Award winner Jacques Barzun, who called it “one of the good stories of murder in godly surroundings,” remarking that the diagrams accompanying the text make it easy to follow the clues. Frank Denton, writing in The St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, said that Gilbert’s maiden effort was a solid achievement which paled only when compared with his later books where “experience brought maturity of writing.” Gilbert, he suggested, could “always be depended on to deliver solid reading entertainment.”
Smallbone Deceased (1950) is often considered one of Gilbert’s masterpieces. Like many of his books, it borrows on his postwar experience as a solicitor. Gilbert numbered the Conservative Party and Raymond Chandler (whose will he drafted) among his clients. He did virtually all of his writing while commuting by train between his home in Kent and his law offices in London.
While Gilbert received an extraordinary number of literary awards and honors in his long lifetime, he was not without his detractors. He expressed amusement when British critics (and fellow mystery writers) Julian Symons and H.R.F. Keating complained that Gilbert fell short of greatness because he was more concerned with entertaining than in enlightening his readers. “I find the whole thing puzzling,” Gilbert wrote in 1980. “What is a writer to do if he is not allowed to entertain?” The passing of time did not alter his opinion. Ten years later he dismissed those deeply analytical novels which serve primarily as a showcase for their author’s personalities as not “members of the true and honorable line of crime stories. They may be something else. As to what I offer no opinion.”
Tom & Enid Schantz
Michael Gilbert’s life as a POW
The Danger Within, Michael Gilbert’s sixth novel, first published in Great Britain as Death in Captivity in 1952, relies heavily on his experiences as a prisoner-of-war in various prison camps in Italy during World War II. While serving with the Royal Horse Artillery in North Africa in 1943, Gilbert was investigating a farm which he believed to be in Allied hands. While he was in the farmhouse his driver heard a burst of automatic fire coming from the building and immediately drove off, leaving Gilbert to fend for himself. Gilbert was officially reported as missing in action, presumed dead. Instead, he was captured and, along with scores of other British officers, flown to Italy.
He was one of the lucky ones. British enlisted men who were taken prisoner in North Africa didn’t fare as well, with hundreds of them dying from thirst and disease in desert prison cages where they were left to rot, according to Gilbert’s fellow officer Tony Davies, who also served with the artillery and who was to join Gilbert in numerous escape attempts during the coming year.
Gilbert and Davies were reunited at Camp P.G. 66, a transit camp at Capua near Naples, where prisoners were kept until places were found for them in permanent camps. The first few weeks in the camp were called the “wire happy” days when the captured men first learned what it was to be a prisoner, a caged animal. After absorbing that initial shock, the captives grew accustomed to their status and began doing things to make their lives as comfortable as possible.
And to plan their escapes.
Gilbert, gaunt and bespectacled, looking very much like Captain Henry “Cuckoo” Goyles in The Danger Within, insisted to Davies that they needed to be in top physical condition when they made their attempt. Fortunately, Red Cross packages began arriving at this time, replacing the meager fare they had been fed in the North Africa camps—disgusting ersatz coffee made from dried lupin seeds, macaroni soup, bread, a little cheese and dates. The Red Cross rations, on the other hand, provided a balanced diet and did much to keep the men fit.
As part of their daily fitness regimen, Gilbert and Davies made sixty brisk circuits of the camp, just inside the barbed wire, each night between 7 and 9. Tunneling at this camp was not possible and, besides, it was unclear how long they would be there. Instead, the two decided that their best chance for a successful escape would be to jump from the train that would transport them to their permanent camp. They figured that once they got clear of the train they would walk 80 miles to the Adriatic coast, steal a fishing boat and head for Yugoslavia, where they could make contact with the partisans. They squirreled away as much food as they could spare from their rations but planned to live off the land as much as possible. To this end, they traded bits from their Red Cross packages to get lira from the Italian guards.
The Italians were easy to deal with in this matter. And, anyhow, they couldn’t understand why the prisoners were so anxious to escape and get back to the war. The Italians also couldn’t tell Germans from English, so the idea was to pass themselves off as German soldiers since badly spoken Italian seems very much the same whether it comes from a German or an Englishman. Fortunately, it was easy to alter their own uniforms to make them look like the Africa Korps uniforms they already resembled. What they lacked were the peaked forage caps worn by Rommel’s men. These they managed to get from some black South African troops in a neighboring compound, who presumably had taken them off of dead German soldiers and had been, oddly enough, allowed to keep them. It cost them two weeks worth of Red Cross rations, their own British berets, and, most importantly of all, a string beads—to the South Africans the most important part of the transaction—which they were able to obtain by having another English prisoner steal them from some other South Africans.
After six weeks in the camp, Gilbert and Davies were notified that they would be among 40 prisoners who were to be transferred to a permanent camp at Chieti, near Pescara on the Adriatic, about 100 miles from their present location. The prisoners were placed in second-class compartments in groups of six along with an armed sentry. The train left Capua at 6 p.m. heading first south to Caserta near Naples, then northeast over the mountains. The train proceeded uphill in the darkness at a steady 30 miles an hour. Once the train began to accelerate, the two knew that they were on a down gradient and it was time to make their move. Another prisoner who was in on the plan distracted the sentry by offering him a cigarette. At that moment, Gilbert pulled the window down three feet and jumped, Davies following nearly immediately, stealing one last look at the sentry whose surprised face was illuminated by the match lit for his cigarette. Davies landed on a small road alongside the track and immediately began to scramble to safety up the hillside. Gilbert was nowhere in sight. The train braked and sentries on the flat van at the rear of the train began shooting in his direction but soon gave up. Obviously, there was no way that a handful of soldiers could find two men in this kind of terrain in the darkness and the train soon recommenced its journey as the remaining prisoners cheered and sang “God Save the King.”
After the train was out of sight, Davies and Gilbert both shouted for each other but apparently the two were out of earshot and each decided the other had been either recaptured or killed by the jump. The two proceeded on their separate ways, Gilbert sticking to the original plan of walking to the Adriatic while Davies decided the best idea was simply to get as far away from the jump site as quickly as possible. For the next couple of days the two moved across the countryside, fooling most of the Italian soldiers they encountered, although Gilbert was eventually recaptured by the Italians. Davies’ phony uniform was his eventual downfall. At one point, he encountered a German patrol and decided to bluff his way through, at which point he was stopped as a suspected deserter. A closer look at his uniform elicited a laugh from the German officer in charge who immediately identified Davies as one of the two escaped English prisoners.
“You know,” the German said, “the funniest thing about this whole business is that the Italians have called out at least a division to look for you. You are classed as highly dangerous and to be recaptured at all costs. What a joke! You dodge the whole lot of them and walk straight into me. Funny, isn’t it?”
The Italians Davies was turned over to also thought the affair was funny, but for different reasons. He was told: “You go through the hell of Africa, the beastliness of fighting, you are fortunate enough to be captured and to leave all that behind you. You come to our lovely country, and then, at the first opportunity, you risk your life so that you can get back to the war. You must be crazy!”
Crazy or not, the two were even more determined than ever to escape again. Gilbert told Davies, “At least we’ve learned a lot. We shan’t make the same mistakes a second time.”
For their efforts, the two were court martialed (an odd but standard procedure for attempted escapees) along with the hapless sentry who received two years at hard labor for accepting a bribe, even though the English officers told the court that he had been merely derelict in his duty. The court sentenced Gilbert and Davies to 30 days in solitary confinement, a sentence that struck neither as being particularly onerous since it meant that they would enjoy one of those precious things that all prisoners lack, a bit of privacy, and besides the solitary confinement cells weren’t all that small. Or all that solitary, for that matter. It turned out that two of the three cells were already occupied and so Gilbert and Davies were placed in the same cell where they immediately began preparing for their next escape attempt by getting the guards to help them perfect their rudimentary Italian. The worst part of their incarceration was an infestation of body lice.
They also had a bit of fun at the expense of their jailers by doing a little sentry-baiting. One night, Gilbert positioned his head and shoulders in front of the cell’s window and proceed to whack an out-of-sight mattress with a board while Davies, safely hidden from view in another corner, shrieked in pain. When the sentries showed up with their officers to show them how the prisoners were attempting to kill each other both men were tucked quietly in their beds, apparently sleeping the night away.
Near the end of their confinement, a Swiss delegation arrived in camp to insure that the Italians were adhering to the Geneva Convention rules for prison camps. The camp had been tidied up and punishment cells were discreetly disguised. Gilbert and Davies waited until the Swiss team was passing close to their cell and then began banging on their cell door, crying out: “Acqua, Acqua. For the love of God a little water.” The Swiss somehow didn’t hear but the Italians did and they were not amused.
The Italians, in fact, were often not amused at the way the English prisoners made fun of them. For the most part the Italian citizenry were proud of their own soldiers, affectionately referring to them as I Nostri piccoli, which translates to “our little ones.” This term never failed to amuse the British, who ridiculed the Italian troops as “more shout than shoot.” It was obvious to everyone that most of the Italian soldiers were not happy about being drafted, but once in the army they fell in love with their uniforms and the accompanying pomp. In The Danger Within, the prisoners make fun of the guards in order to trick them as part of their escape plan.
Once out of solitary confinement, the two reported to the camp’s escape committee and then presented a talk to about 300 prisoners on their failed attempt to escape. The talk was entitled “The Principles of Marine Insurance,” and the Italians never seemed to question why so many men would be interested in so specialized a topic. Toying with the guards remained one of the most enjoyable ways to pass away the time in the camp. Even though Gilbert spent only five days at Campo P.G. 21 (not counting that month in solitary confinement), he obviously based Campo 127 in The Danger Within on Campo P.G. 21, which Davies described as “a series of one-story buildings arranged in rows on either side of a large dusty expanse” surrounded by a 15-foot high wall with guard towers situated at each corner and halfway along each side. Each tower had a searchlight and a machine gun.
“There were no less than four tunnels in progress at that moment,” Davies wrote in When the Moon Rises, his 1973 account of the escape attempts he made with Gilbert. “Italian security guards were extremely active, and the ‘Ferrets,’ carabinieri (Italian soldiers) working in pairs, spent the entire day inside the compound, searching every inch of ground and buildings for signs of tunneling activity.” Often the prisoners only had two minutes warning to conceal their labors before search teams arrived.
Although the escape plans in The Danger Within center around tunnelling, it was one of the few methods in which Gilbert himself was not directly involved. His first camp at Capua did not lend itself to such methods and he wasn’t at Campo P.G. 21 long enough to do any tunnelling. Tunneling at this next stop was out of the question, since the prison consisted of a single three-story building with basement in the middle of the village of Fontanellato five miles north of Parma. It was a prison designed to house Molto Pericoloso—troublemakers and habitual escapers. It would take all of Gilbert and Davies’ ingenuity to break out of this place.
Unlike the Fascisti in charge of Campo 127 in The Danger Within, the Italian officers at Fontanellato were professional soldiers who treated their prisoners well. They knew—and respected the fact—that it was a prisoner’s duty to escape just as it was their duty to prevent those escapes. One of the amenities that the Campo 49 lacked was a place for the prisoners to exercise, other than a weekly walk under heavy guard outside the walls. These walks not only provided the prisoners with fresh air and a little exercise, they also provided them a knowledge of the local geography which was to prove invaluable. Eventually, the Italians allowed the prisoners to build an exercise field outside the building. It was heavily guarded and enclosed by a barbed-wire fence. Since the ground was too rough for regular exercise, the prisoners were allowed tools to level the field.
The prisoners soon saw a possible means for escape and carefully constructed a small trench, roofing it over and disguising it each night. When it was finished, the British organized a game of rugby. When the scrum fell on top of the trench, two men climbed in and were roofed over hidden from view by the mass of bodies. At roll call, the two men were reported to be asleep in sick bay and before the guards could reach their supposed resting place, two of the prisoners who had already been counted rushed in and occupied their bunks. The two men in the trench made it to the border where they could see the inhabitants of a Swiss village from their perch before they were recaptured.
By this time, the war was going badly for the Italians. The Allied invasion was going very well and it was expected that Italy would soon be out of the war. That, however, meant that the Germans would take over and this is what the prisoners most feared. Although a full-scale tunnel was not possible in Campo 49, the prisoners managed to cut into the stone walls above the basement to create a hiding place in case the Germans should try to seize control of the prison. In that event, the hole could be pushed through the wall, allowing the prisoners to escape at ground level.
Then on the evening of July 21, 1943, the prisoners heard shouting and cheering from the guards’ quarters. Mussolini and the Fascist regime had been toppled. Soon villagers joined in the cheering, tearing down Fascist posters and smashing plaster busts of Il Duce to bits. The atmosphere had changed greatly, but as the days passed the prisoners’ status remained unchanged. Finally, on September 9, the Italians cut a hole in the fence surrounding the exercise field and within a few days the prisoners marched out, free at last but far from out of danger. The Italian guards threw away their guns and went into hiding, fearing reprisals from the fast approaching German troops, who were determined to hold the northern regions of Italy.
Villagers gave the newly freed men clothes and food. Most of them chose to head for the Swiss border and interment until the end of the war. Gilbert and Davies wanted nothing to do with that option. One other prisoner, Toby Graham, joined them in their decision to head south instead toward the advancing Allies. They were about to embark on one of the most remarkable journeys in the history of warfare, most of it along the 600-mile backbone of Italy, the Apennine mountain range. It was an ordeal that no doubt partially inspired Gilbert’s 1985 novel, The Long Journey Home.
The three men dodged German troops for next several weeks, aided by Italian peasants who opened their homes and barns to the former prisoners. Some days they fared better than others, but Gilbert was always determined to make the best of their situation. “Any bloody fool can eat and sleep rough,” he said, so the threesome quit their trek each day in time to find a suitable resting place, staying with peasants and avoiding the more prosperous homes which they feared might belong to unrepentant Fascist sympathizers. Eventually they made it through Tuscany and into the province of Marche, where they found refuge in a monastery. Gilbert and Graham talked to the Father Superior, mostly in Latin, and were invited to stay there to wait for the Allied arrival. Gilbert favored the idea but Davies and Graham pointed out that the Allies were still 200 miles away and that the Germans could still recapture them. The three continued on their journey but at one point, disagreeing over the route, Toby went his separate way.
The three miraculously met up again, along with another escapee, a South African named Hal Becker, just a few miles from the Allied lines. But the closer they got to the Allied lines, the more Germans they had to get through. Finally, they reached an open valley near those lines. It looked safe enough but they decided it would be best to go in pairs. Michael and Toby took off and made it without any difficulty. Ten minutes later Becker and Davies followed. Halfway across the valley, shots rang out and Becker was killed. Davies ran on and jumped over a crest only to fall into the hands of a German patrol. He was a prisoner again. Gilbert and Graham, on the other hand, made it safely to the Allied lines. Of the 400 officers who marched out of Campo P.G. 49, only a tenth made it to freedom. The rest were killed or recaptured by the Germans within days. Davies was sent to Moosburg POW camp in Germany, later famous for its “great escape” and brutal aftermath. Davies succeeded in escaping that camp as well but was recaptured near Prague where he spent the rest of the war.
Gilbert, who died in 2006 at the age of 93, went on to become an attorney and one of the most honored mystery writers of the second half of the twentieth century, Graham became a history professor at the University of Toronto, while Davies settled down as a country doctor. If such a thing as the “greatest generation” exists, these three—and their comrades—surely stood at the very front of its ranks.
Tom & Enid Schantz
Editor’s note: This introduction is but a poor summary of the events related in Tony Davies’ When the Moon Rises (Leo Cooper, 1973), a book that cries out to be made into a movie.