Friday, 24 March 2017

Death Has Deep Roots by Michael Gilbert

 
published 1951
 
 
Death has Deep Roots
 

[Solicitor Nap Rumbold has a very short time in which to try to find evidence of a client’s innocence. He needs to investigate events in the past in war-time France.]


Meanwhile Nap had discovered the Bureau de Lorraine…

He found a room marked ‘Reception’ and looked in.

Seated behind a desk, sole occupant of the room, was a girl. She looked up, saw Nap, and smiled. It did not need the new copy of Le Figaro in her hand or the elaborately-simple, beautifully conceived clothes. The face itself was sufficient to place her within ten square miles of the world’s surface. Only one capital city could produce that deepest of dark brown hair, with high-lights of black , that white neck solidly angled to the shoulders yet too well-proportioned to seem thick: Siamese cat’s eyes of very light blue, which were so rarely found with such black hair.

Nap realized that he was staring, but that the girl seemed unembarrassed by this circumstance.

Possibly she was used to people staring at her.

‘Can I be of assistance?’


commentary: As so many times before, the crime writer, crime fiction expert (and blogfriend) Martin Edwards is the direct cause of my picking this book up. Recently on his blog he reviewed Guilty? (aka By Whose Hand?) a 1956 film based on Death Has Deep Rootssee the blogpost here. I was sufficiently intrigued to order a DVD of the film, and was also very happy to find that I had a copy of the book already – first read more than 20 years ago. So I wallowed in film and book, enjoying both enormously.

Martin says with perfect truth that it is odd that more of Gilbert’s books weren’t filmed or televised – they seem like ideal material. This one is a corker, with a great setup. Victoria, a young Frenchwoman working in a London hotel, has been accused of murdering one of the guests – a man known to her previously, when they and several other characters were all working for the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation in WW2.

Victoria mistrusts her legal team, and changes them at the last minute – bringing in the oddly-named Nap, above. He and a friend do some hands-on investigating, while his father and the barrister fight the case in court, trying to slow it down for the last-minute evidence to emerge. So alternate chapters feature the excitements and tension of a major murder trial, and then the adventures of the investigators – from low-life London dives, to an army camp on Salisbury Plain, to a trip to the French countryside where the crime does indeed have its roots.

It is completely gripping, with occasional excellent flashes of humour, and some wonderful scene-setting and character-drawing. I loved the delicate question when a witness has emerged, something of a good-time girl:
‘Her name is Irene, and she sings when she can get an engagement.’
‘Is she----?’
‘No she isn’t. I don’t say that if times got hard she mightn’t be, but at the moment, in my opinion, she’s just an honest little trouper without much stuffing.’

One of my favourite Michael Gilbert books is the astonishing Night of Twelfth, an absolute tour de force, and also a tremendous picture of a fictional boys’ prep school, lightly sketched. This book has another such school – it only appears in a couple of pages, and it could have been omitted altogether, but the pages of description are hilarious and completely convincing and made me laugh out loud in a crowded train. This also made me check out Gilbert’s biography: I think of him as a lawyer, but yes he did earlier work as a teacher – I had decided he MUST have done to write so well about schools. Here there is a teacher who pretends to have been a conscientious objector during the War, because the boys would get over-excited if they knew he had been a Commando.

Nap goes on from there to call in unexpectedly on a young housewife. She shows him into the sitting-room then disappears for a couple of minutes: She came back having ‘done the mysterious things which women do to themselves on such occasions [so as to] look ready to entertain a duchess.’

One character, the missing soldier Julian, is seen entirely through others’ views of him, particularly women’s views. He is no stereotype – he is not the dashing Don Juan type, but it is clear he has a way with women, and he becomes very real to the reader.

It’s these little touches that make Gilbert’s books so charming and memorable, as well as his good plots and excellent legal details. I think he gives a magical picture of London, and of 1951 lowlife as well as the legal world. I also like the incidental details – Nap, starving, gets some sandwiches in the hope of eating them at his desk, but is called out urgently and has to go off elsewhere. Nowadays we would assume he would take the sandwiches with him and eat them in the street or in the taxi – but that was obviously impossible for a respectable young chap in 1951, so he ditches them, offers them to his secretary. Five guineas to any contemporary author who is able to put a detail that perfect & authentic into a historical book… It's the manners that they get wrong, as I think my blogfriend Lucy Fisher would agree.

My only complaint about the book was that it wrapped up too quickly, I’d have liked a bit more detail about what happened subsequently to the various characters.

I then watched the film, which was also very enjoyable, though with a simplified plot, and somewhat less nuance in the characters. But the trial scenes were great fun to watch – are there any bad films set in courtrooms? – so hard for it NOT to be compelling.

So thanks again to Martin for the push, and h/t to Chrissie Poulson who got me re-reading Night of the Twelfth two years ago.

The picture is from an ancient strange book called Girls of Paris which I picked up secondhand. She is actually reading the fashion magazine Elle rather than Figaro….

For more from Michael Gilbert, Martin Edwards, Chrissie Poulson or Lucy Fisher, click on the labels below. 























28 comments:

  1. Sounds an interesting set-up. You've tempted me more with this than previous recent entries. I doubt I will feel motivated to seek this out though. I have a couple from him in the tubs - Roller Coaster - from the 90s? (did he write for that long time-span?) and Death in Captivity (1952)

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    1. He wrote for pretty much 50 years, most impressive. I don't know Roller Coaster at all, but Death in Captivity might light your fire, it could be just the book for you!

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  2. Oh, this does sound good, Moira. The premise got my attention right away, and I do like the writing style. I've read a few things by Gilbert, but not this one. Seems I'm missing out! Trust Martin Edwards to point you towards a great read.

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    1. Court-room dramas are always compelling aren't they? And as you say, you can never go wrong with a Martin Edwards recommendation.

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  3. I enjoyed this book as well. It was this book which made me give Gilbert another chance, as unfortunately my first Gilbert read was a collection of short stories which came out near the end of their writing career. Suffice to say they were rather dull and they put me off trying Gilbert again for ages.

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    1. Oh well I'll steer clear of them then - I tend not to go for short stories at the best of times. And Gilbert wrote so many good novels, no need to wander into stories.

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  4. One of my favourite crime writers, Moira. And yes, Col, he really did write for that long timespan, though I don't feel he was as good by the end. Death in Captivity is very good. Incidentally, I believe he was Raymond Chandler's UK lawyer!

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    1. When I get around to him, I suppose I'll save the earlier one until last then - get the disappointment out of the way first!

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    2. Thanks Chrissie - that's a gem about Chandler. And Col - NO! Read the good one first. Life's too short to do it the other way round.

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    3. Wasn't IWD a couple of weeks ago? Stop picking on me!

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    4. It's for your own good! Women always know best, as I'm sure you know really.

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  5. Downloaded. But am in the middle of The Brading Collection!

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    1. Couldn't be more different, but both so very much of the era...

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  6. I got into Gilbert when I read DEATH IN CAPTIVITY, then moved onto the classic SMALLBONE DECEASED, however most of my Gilberts have been short story ocllections, and I must make a defence of his short stories as I think that he was a master of the form. YOUNG PETRELLA and PETRELLA AT Q follow the progress of a young Policeman from childhood through uniform branch and finally to full fledged Inspector. Some of the stories are mysteries, some tough procedurals, and some just defy classification. They are wondefully twisty, and just when you think you know where the the tale is going, Gilbert throws in another twist just to keep you on your toes. There is one about a highly intelligent but lonely boy who falls in with some young toughs that has a genuinely poignant ending.

    I've just finished GAME WITHOUT RULES, which is the first collection of stories concerning his two elderly intelligence officers Mr Calder and Mr Behrens. The two protagonists are likeable, charming and utterly ruthless, and Gilbert delights in taking you though this world where, to quote Mr Behrens "There's no good or bad, only expediency". I've only scratched the surface with Gilbert, and I'm going to have to read much more.

    ggary

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    1. Just when I thought I needn't bother with the short stories! But thanks for the recos. I've just been looking to see which of his books I have on my shelves, and there's a couple I have no recollection of at all, though I have definitely read them.

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  7. Moira: Let me rant for a moment. I dislike legal fiction which has a last minute change of lawyers to a brilliant new team rescuing the case. It is a bad idea to change lawyers at the last moment. It takes time to understand the nuances of major cases. I wish I could read a book where lawyers for an overly difficult client withdraw at the last minute. Alas, it would not be credible for lawyers, at least Canadian lawyers, cannot fire clients at the last minute.

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    1. One of John Mortimer's Rumpole stories involves Rumpole withdrawing at the last minute when his client says her defence is a lie. Is Rumpole over-squeamish or does that happen sometimes?

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    2. A lawyer has to apply to withdraw in that circumstance but cannot give the reason to the court. You cannot present a defence you know is not true. It is a challenge to word properly but the court will be told the lawyer can no longer represent for reasons that cannot be disclosed but prevent counsel from proceeding with the defence. A court will be forced to trust the integrity of the lawyer as an officer of the court. I am grateful not to have ever been put in that situation.

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    3. I'm sure you're right Bill! In this case the defendant thinks her legal team doesn't believe her innocent. She thinks they will try for mitigating circumstances, rather than total innocence.
      In the case of the lawyer withdrawing - would everyone not assume that the reason was exactly that, lawyer knowing defence was a lie? No matter how carefully worded?

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    4. Moira: There will be strong suspicion but it will not be on the record and, in particular, if there is a jury they would never know the reasons. As well, no one can be sure which evidence is at the heart of the withdrawal.

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    5. Thanks Bill, helpful clarification.

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  8. Whenever I think of courtroom scenes in movies I immediately flash on "Witness for the Prosecution." Wonderful movie. Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich. And Elsa Lanchester in a memorable role. Christie, of course.

    Both these Gilbert books are now on my list!

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    1. Oh yes, Witness for the Prosecution is an absolute humdinger. I do love a tense courtroom scene.

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  9. Thanks for this great review, Moira. DHDR is also perfect for Simon & Karen's 1951 Club which will be happening in a couple of weeks. Even though I have several 1951 books on the shelf that I should read, I've just downloaded this one instead.

    http://tinyurl.com/lq8azhb

    I'm also tempted by the movie...

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    1. Oh thanks for tipping me off about 1951 club, I'll go and check it out. Hope you enjoy this one.

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  10. This books sounds very good but since I have just become enamored of Gilbert, that is no surprise. I agree with ggary about GAME WITHOUT RULES. It is a wonderful book of short stories and I am also eager to try the Petrella short stories.

    According to various sources this is the 5th Inspector Hazelrigg, and I already have two earlier ones, so I will just look out for a copy of this for the future. I am sure order doesn't matter in this case, however.

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    1. No I don't think so, and Inspector Hazelrigg is on the sidelines in this one - it is not his case, but he drops hints to his friend the investigating lawyer.
      I can see I am going to have to read his short stories.

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