Sunday, 10 May 2015

Dress Down Sunday: The Empty House by Michael Gilbert

 
 
published 1978



LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES

 
Empty House


When [Peter] had undressed he sat on his bed, in his pyjamas, and he thought about Anna. She was in the room next door to him. He could hear the faint sounds as she moved about; and, he presumed, undressed. It was his fatal lack of experience, not the wall between them that was the barrier. How did one start? Would it answer if he rushed in, grabbed hold of her, rolled her over on to her back - ?

At this moment the door of his own room opened softly and Anna came in. He saw that she was wearing a knee-length pyjama coat and nothing else.

She said, ‘I thought it would be polite to wait five minutes in case you were coming in to say goodnight to me.’ And as Peter put his arms round her clumsily, ‘Is this the first time ever, little Peter?’

‘The first time,’ said Peter thickly.

‘It’s not at all difficult. Like dancing, only nicer. Do you want me to teach you?’

This made Peter angry. He said, ‘No. I’ll do the teaching.’

Later Anna said, ‘Gently. Peter please. When I said dancing, I meant a slow waltz, not a foxtrot.’

 
observations: I’ve been rediscovering Michael Gilbert - Smallbone Deceased featured on the blog a while back, and I was knocked out by The Night of the Twelfth – published a couple of years before this one. Two of my good blogging friends, and crime writers, Christine Poulson and Martin Edwards, are both big fans of Gilbert – Martin knew him, and shared his profession of lawyer.

The Empty House features a young insurance investigator – the Peter above – sent to Devon look into the death of a geneticist who has apparently driven his car over a cliff. He was in possession of vital scientific information which would be of interest and value to many different countries and organizations. Any experienced crime or thriller reader will have some idea of the various complications that may be coming, but Gilbert is one step ahead of the reader, and can pull out some good surprises. Just when you’re bemoaning the obviousness of something, he can confound you. He’s really good at planting clues, the kind that are satisfying whether you spot them or have to have them explained.

There’s some great writing about the Devon landscape, and a continuing theme of references to, of all things, the RD Blackmore classic book, Lorna Doone. Matthew Arnold’s sublime poem, On Dover Beach, is used to mesmerising effect.

The atmosphere of the 1970s is extremely well done. It’s a thriller, and Gilbert is setting out to create danger and tension, so is welcome to exaggerate. But at that time there WAS a feeling of paranoia and uncertainty: the nuclear threat was very strong, and there certainly were fears in the UK that the security services were out of control, and that the fight against extremism could be an excuse to threaten democracy. Gilbert uses all this to great effect. (Strangely, it has this in common with a current book which couldn’t be more different in other ways, Our Endless Numbered Days, recently on the blog, and with a diametrically opposed reaction to the difficulties of the times.)

Peter’s rather excruciating response to Anna’s overtures, above, is also very much of its time. It’s hard to think of any woman (then or now) who would not find that crass.

This is a very well-constructed thriller, and a good look at a bygone world, and I liked the idea of Peter’s final decision on his own fate…

The image is a recycled photo – the line in the book reminded me of this picture so much that I had to retrieve it from an entry from a 1950s murder story here. That’s Jean Shrimpton in the photo.


















12 comments:

  1. I actually like Gilbert's work too, Moira. He also wrote some fine short stories. And you're right about the overall atmosphere during the 1970s. Looking back it doesn't seem that way, but it was a time of real tension on several fronts. Sounds as though Gilbert captured that neatly, which quite frankly doesn't surprise me. And yes, poor David. Or rather, poor Anna...

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    1. There's been a couple of mentions of his short stories, Margot, I really must look at them. I think David's masculine pride was not at all untypical of the times...

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  2. Margot is absolutelyright about the consistent enjoyability of his short stories, Moira. And the good news is - there a lot of them!

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    1. So I gather - I read quite a few of his full-length books without ever coming across the stories, so I definitely need to seek them out, thanks Martin.

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  3. Not read this one but I've never met a Gilbert I didn't like, though most of the ones I can recall were mysteries - thanks Moira!

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    1. He wrote a lot didn't he Sergio? I've read quite a few but have realized that there's a lot more out there. I very much enjoyed his more old-fashioned mysteries too.

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  4. Glad you enjoyed it, Moira. I reread this one recently - and enjoyed it all over again. He is such an intelligent writer. The sexual mores are very of their time, I'm afraid.

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    1. He's very clever isn't he, but in a non-showy way. He takes the tropes of the genre, then works away at them in the corners - does that make any sense to you?

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  5. I still have read only the one book by Michael Gilbert. I have this one and a couple that Christine had mentioned on her blog. Hope to get to them soonish.

    I do love that Jean Shrimpton photo.

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    1. Yes, you read the prison camp one a while back didn't you? I must re-read that one. Jean S had such charisma and glamour - apparently she still does, she runs a hotel in a small town in Cornwall in England, and is still very beautiful.

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  6. A possible for me, if I didn't have zillions already. I'll stick to my couple of Gilbert's already acquired.

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    1. Yes, read the ones you've got - you might find you like him....

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