Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert

Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

I’ve enjoyed more or less everything I’ve read in the British Library Crime Classics series (everything has had something to recommend it), but Michael Gilbert’s books have been a particularly happy discovery. I really hope there will be more (there are some spectacularly ugly house of Stratus editions of his work which I will buy if I have to) because based on the sample of three that I’ve read it’s hard to understand why he ever fell out of fashion.

Death in Captivity is a sort of locked room mystery set in an Italian prisoner of war camp in the summer of 1943. A man widely suspected of being an informer is found dead in a half dug escape tunnel. Due to the arrangements to get into the tunnel he can’t have got there by himself which seems to limit the pool of suspects to the group of men who know about the tunnel…

Henry ‘Cuckoo’ Goyles is given the task of trying to work out who did it, but meanwhile the allied forces are landing in Sicily and there’s about to be a significant regime change in Italy. Everybody is jumpy regardless of side – enthusiastic fascists have quite a bit to worry about, and so do the prisoners who might find themselves in the non to careful hands of the Germans.

The need to find the murderer, work out if there’s a traitor in the camp, and escape whilst the going’s good, make for a tremendously satisfying thriller. The tension as the last few chapters spin out is terrific, but there’s more to the book than it just being a good yarn.

As with the other two books in this series (Death has Deep Roots, and Smallbone Deceased) Gilbert is drawing heavily on his own life experience. He was a prisoner in Italy, he did escape, but not everybody he traveled with survived the experience. It gives his picture of camp life an authenticity that’s impossible to counterfeit, especially when it comes to describing how relationships between the men thrive under one set of circumstances, disintegrate under others, and how different personalities cope with the hardship of camp life.
It also helps that these books have aged well – the prejudices of the era are more or less in check, and in the camp there’s a tolerance for all the different cliques set on getting through the experience as best they can. The faction that make up the dedicated escapees are only one group, and those who spend their time on roulette, amateur dramatics, and make believe, don’t necessarily suffer by comparison. Another writer might have made these characters the butt of a joke, but Gilbert uses them to move the plot along in various ways, and his descriptions feel affectionate.

All of that, along with Gilbert’s particular brand of understated deadpan humour, makes for a winning combination. These books have all been so much more than the sum of their parts, and they make me really curious about the author as a person (I imagine he was a charming delight of a man). I’m inclined to say this one is the best of the lot, both in terms of plot and for its insights into POW life but all three have their points, and they’re all excellent.

Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader, where this review first appeared.

Michael Gilbert, Death in Captivity (British Library, 2019). 978-0712352130, 288pp., paperback.

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