The Mysterious Bookshop

Michael Gilbert, Underrated by many, but no longer!


For aeons, readers have delighted in following along with an investigation into a crime.  Crime fiction has several genres, and if you’re reading this, you are no doubt familiar with most or all of them.

Probably the most popular is the ‘procedural,’ where the reader is given an inside view of the cop, or detective, or precinct, as he/they scramble to find and interpret clues and bring the miscreant(s) to justice.  Usually a murder is involved, less often white collar crime, corruption in high places, international intrigue, or a kidnapping might be the topic of interest.

One of the most underrated writers of the procedural was Michael Gilbert (1912-2006), who somehow combined a very prolific writing career with his parallel calling at a London law firm, the latter culminating in a partnership.  Prolific?  I’ll say!  Gilbert is said to have done most of his writing on his commutes back and forth from London Town. What a variety of work he created in only two hours every weekday!  In addition to his detective stories, the author produced espionage thrillers, short stories, courtroom dramas, non-fiction legal discussions, stage plays, and dramas for radio and television.   Well known among aficionados for plausible, intricate plotting and well-drawn characters, Gilbert published his first novel, Close Quarters, in 1947 for Hodder & Stoughton. Three years later came perhaps his most acclaimed work, Smallbone Deceased.  Several of Mr. Gilbert’s books are set in the legal world, clearly drawn from his own experience in the law; in these, the author gives the reader the best of two worlds, melding the arcane doings within the British legal system with the behind the scenes machinations in a big legal outfit, while also providing the red herrings and plot twists of the traditional crime thriller.

Recurring characters?  I’m glad you asked! Gilbert is known for his Spanish-British detective Peter Petrella and the popular team of Calder and Behrens, elderly espionage agents who have a practiced riff in convincing crooks, real or wannabe, that they are befuddled old coots just this side of senility, to the eventual sorrow of the accused. In most of Gilbert’s books, there is a particularly pleasing tone, written as they were before all-consuming forensics, widespread use of computers, and especially the unfortunate tendency to saddle cops and detectives with all manner of problems. Be honest--when was the last time you read a current detective novel where the sleuth didn’t have some combination of a drinking problem, money troubles, or a dysfunctional family?  How normal the Golden Age characters seem!  A lot of them have a kind of genteel humanity that is sometimes missing today.

Gilbert served honorably during World War 2 as an artilleryman.  He was captured in Italy and spent time as a POW.  When the Italian army collapsed at the end of the war, he escaped and undertook a 500-mile trek back to the Allied lines, memorably fictionalized in Death In Captivity. At one time he was an advised the country of Bahrain on legal matters, which experience was also mined for plot lines during his career.

So Michael Gilbert skillfully used his military experience and his years practicing law in his tales.  Interestingly, among his better known law clients was none other than Raymond Chandler, whose will his fellow author drew  up!  Now THAT would have made a good thriller!  One could even make the argument that, with such a wide variety in his body of work, Michael Gilbert missed the wider recognition that many if not most of his fellow authors and fans felt that he deserved. Perhaps if he had focused on one or two genres he would be as revered as a Christie or Simenon.  On the other hand, there is something refreshing about an author content to let the work speak for itself.

His daughter Harriet made a name for himself in broadcasting, and son Gerard is a journalist for the Independent newspaper.

Michael Gilbert had a long and varied career as a writer from Close Quarters right up through his last novel, Over and Out, published in 1999. He took on serious themes, sometimes between the lines, but always with a touch of humor.

Perhaps the best summary of his work comes to us from Kent Carroll of Carroll & Graf publishers. Quoth he: ‘He wrote about a sordid world from the perspective of a gentleman.’

Not a bad epitaph, that.

Check out some of the man’s life work, right here at Mysterious:

In which we meet Inspector Hazelrigg, who interrupts his holiday to investigate an apparent accident.

Detective Sergeant Petrella investigates a murdered woman who turns out to be the wife of an escaped convict.


A dozen stories featuring DS Petrella of Division Q at the Yard, each cleverly segueing into the next.


Scotland Yard is investigating the financial empire of one Blackett for various crimes, including fraud and murder!

Questions/Comments/Order of the British Empire?

Written by Ian Kern — August 22, 2016