Every work of fiction must meet the test of credibility: while we are reading, we must believe. Coleridge called it "that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment." That does not mean that fiction must be written in the realistic mode; any mode will do so long as the writer is able to make us believe. The work must have inner credibility. We know that all fiction is made up; we ask only that the writer manage his task so the evidence of contrivance is not obvious. In the last issue of the Review I called a story of Kipling's one of the finest in the language because of its seeming naturalness, for the skill with which he concealed his artistry. There are plenty of very fine works that do not come up to that standard, and our literature would be impoverished without them. For example, some of Hemingway's early stories (I'm thinking of "The Killers") seem perfectly natural, but "In Another Country," fine as it is, seems contrived. There are degrees of artistry and we may, according to our taste, enjoy even poorly contrived fictions. Putting taste aside, let us strive for intellectual clarity here and say that the best writers are those who create the most believable fiction.
Crime fiction is perhaps the most obviously contrived genre, with its stereotyped plots, situations, and characters, but we can be charmed again and again by the absurdities of Hercule Poirot or Inspector Maigret or countless other amateur and professional sleuths because the better writers create a world, an atmosphere that seems real because it is internally consistent, i.e., no matter how immoral some of the characters may be, they all inhabit the same behavioral and moral universe. To put it another way, we do not expect characters in an Agatha Christie story to behave as the characters in a Simenon novel--their worlds are quite different. There are not many of these better writers, and there never were. Crime fiction is a vast field full of lousy writers, but it has produced two masters, Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, and I think Michael Gilbert (1912-2006) will one day be ranked right behind them because he created a solid, believable world in his fiction, one that does not seem at all contrived.
Here's a quotation from the introduction to one of his recent books:
It is the fashion nowadays for the author to penetrate deeply into the characters and feelings of his policemen; their family quarrels and upsets, their psychological backgrounds, their secret ambitions and phobias, all are laid bare for us. The great American writer Professor Jacques Barzun objected strongly to the practice. "Am I a couch?" he demanded. I side with Barzun. Let your policeman get on with his job. --The Man Who Hated Banks
My sentiments exactly, and not just because I want the "policeman to get on with his job"; with all the couch work the characters are less and less believable as it becomes obvious that the extraneous goings-on are deliberate distractions from what's supposed to be the main story line; we see the characters as bogus devices used to fill an essentially empty construction, as ploys to brand name a product (the cat-loving cop, the alcoholic cop, etc), as displays of pretension revealing a writer both incapable of writing a simple detective story and simultaneously a jerk who thinks he's too good for that. Such books dominate the field nowadays and amazingly, their writers think that by such devices they achieve realism and evade contrivance!
What crime fiction did Michael Gilbert write? From 1947 when his first novel, Close Quarters, was published, until 50 years later, he published some 30 novels and story collections, ranging "from Scotland Yard police procedurals to classic country-house mysteries, action-packed thrillers, and tales of the seamy side of London life." [Blurb from back cover of The Man Who Hated Banks] All of it is characterized by naturalness, warmth, economy, pertinence, and for lack of a better word, ordinariness. This is from Young Petrella:
"It's a Ponting job," said Superintendent Palance. "It's got their registered trade mark all over it. Get after them quick. They're probably hiding up."
But the Pontings were not hiding. They were at home, and in bed. They raised no objection to a search of their premises.
"It's irregular," said Sidney. "But what have we got to hide?"
"You boys have got your job to do," said Jack. "Get it finished, and we can get on with our breakfast."
Palance came up to see Haxtell. "They certainly did it. They most certainly did it. Equally certainly they've dumped the diamonds. And none of them has reached a receiver yet, I'm sure of that. And the Pontings use Mrs. Coulman."
"Yes," said Haxtell. "Well, we must hope to do better this time."
"Are you set on trying it on your own?" Palance was senior to Haxtell. And he was longer in service, and older in experience. Haxtell thought of these things, and paused. He was well aware of the responsibility he was shouldering, and which he could so easily evade. Then he said, "I really think the only way is to try it ourselves, quietly."
"All right," said Palance. He didn't add, "And on your own head be it." He was never a man to waste words.
Note the economy of writing and the despatch with which the narrative is pursued. There isn't a wasted word, but Gilbert is careful not to drain the Ponting's crime and its consequences of color and interest by reducing everything to a bare recital. Palance's eagerness and earnestness are there in his short sentences and repetitions, which makes Haxtell's decision more impressive, and helps to characterize him, too. The remarks of the Pontings seem unnecessary to the story, but they show by their coolness their confidence in the redoubtable fence, Mrs. Coulman, whose elusiveness is the story's subject. In half a page we've covered several days of action, seen the anxiety of the police and the cockiness of the crooks, and begun to have a feeling for the characters.
From another story in the same volume:
"Don't forget the most important item," said Barstow. "The limp."
Petrella said, "It did occur to me to wonder, sir, whether we ought to place much reliance on the limp."
He received a glare which would have daunted a less self-confident man. "He would have to have somewhere to hide that big screwdriver. It was almost two foot long. The natural place would be a pocket inside his trouser leg. That might account for the appearance of a stiff leg."
Haxtell avoided Barstow's eye. "It's an idea," he said. "Now just get along and start checking on this list of Miss Martin's known relations."
"There was one other thing-"
"Do you know," observed Superintendent Barstow unkindly, why God gave young policemen two feet but only one head?"
Petrella accepted the hint and departed. Nevertheless the idea persisted; and later that day, when he was alone with Haxtell, he voiced it to him.
Here we glimpse Barstow's irascible authority, Petrella's ingenuousness and intelligence, and Haxtell's sympathetic backing of his subordinate, achieved again with a few strokes.
This is from Roller-Coaster, the last novel featuring Patrick Petrella:
Groener said, "This morning Sergeant Belling--one of my most experienced men--was taking a look at the East Stepney Dock. It's a small dock--it hasn't been used for many years--near the out-flow of the Limehouse Cut. He'd taken his launch into the entrance channel. There's no gate at the river end and it's blocked at the far end by a movable grating. There's a narrow beach of shingle and mud on each side of the channel, just above tide level, and it was on the downstream beach, a few yards in from the river, that he spotted the body. And the real puzzle was how the hell it got there."
"Might it have been dropped from the dock?" said Gwilliam.
"Quite impossible. There was no sign of anyone having broken into the dock, which was strongly barred. And if they had got in, to put the body where it was found, would have meant hoisting it over a ten-foot railing of pointed steel spikes."
"And why should anyone have bothered?" said Petrella.
"If they wanted to get rid of the body, they'd have weighted it and dropped it into the river, not left it where it was bound to be spotted sooner or later."
"Might it have been brought in from the river?" said Summerson.
"The same objection," said Petrella. "Why do it?"
Having allowed the amateurs to talk nonsense, Groener was now prepared to pronounce a professional judgment. He said, "I don't think anyone brought that body in. Let me explain. On this stretch of the river boats observe a sort of rule of the road. When the tide's ebbing, and they're coming up against it, they're allowed to hug the banks, where there's some slack water. Boats going down use the tidal flow and keep to mid-stream. So what I'm reasonably sure must have happened is that the body was floating down close to the bank and still high in the water."
"Explain that last bit," said Petrella, who was listening intently.
"A body that goes in fully clothed doesn't sink straight away. Which is how quite a few attempted suicides have been saved. Their rescuers have been able to grab them before their clothes get sodden and pull them right down. Now if a barge came past, near the bank and against the stream, its bow wave would be quite strong enough to lift a body that was only just submerged clean out of the water and deposit it on the beach just inside the entrance."
"Which fits in," said Petrella, "with its being found on the down-stream beach. How long would a body float high?"
The passage conveys facts (which will be very important later) in a way that seems wholly natural. It seems simple, but if you've ever read any crime fiction, you'll know that while this is one of the principal tasks in the genre, the bedrock on which everything rests, its management is not easy. Here we get the facts spontaneously, as it were, and we also get an impression of Groener as a man of solid authority, and one of Petrella as intelligent and thoughtful.
Note the naturalness, the ordinariness of these excerpts--and yet, the economy of the writing and the unwavering focus on the subject gives them a tautness, a heightened quality which makes them hold our interest. This is an impression of ordinariness created artistically. Gilbert is never sensational; he gets and holds our attention by the quality of his writing. I happen to have chosen excerpts from two of the three books about Petrella, but his books about counter-espionage, about the adventures of a semi-retired lawyer, about spy rings, about the career of a ruthless entrepreneur, and so on, exhibit these qualities, too. The characters are never fanciful or absurd, and except for the worst villains, they are sympathetic figures, fellow human beings. That is a very rare accomplishment in crime fiction.
One of the chief pleasures of crime fiction has always been the satisfaction of our moral sense, the triumph of right over wrong, of good over evil, but that's another failing of contemporary writing: too many writers think it's sophisticated to make their detectives wallow in moral ambiguity, to blur the distinction between good and evil, even to deny it altogether (as in Le Carre's cold war spy novels). Of course there are degrees of moral certainty, in life as in art, and we all have varying expectations and predilections in this regard. I like old-fashioned Westerns, for instance, stories featuring a much-maligned but innocent cowboy who arrives on the scene to find an honest old rancher and his beautiful, spunky daughter being swindled by sinister villains (their locus the back room of a saloon) in league with corrupt local powers. The cowboy comes to the aid of the rancher, and after much fisticuffs and gunplay, he defeats the villains, marries the girl, and gets the ranch. Put another way, I'm not looking for verisimilitude when I read a Western; I'm trying to recapture the feelings I had when I went through a pulp magazine phase at the age of ten.
Expecting good to triumph in crime fiction, we know it can never be as true to life as great imaginative literature: Ishmael is saved but the innocent crew of the Pequod goes down with Captain Ahab; Lord Jim finally acts up to his self-conception but must die in the act. Melville and Conrad, like Gilbert, are writing about a moral universe; the difference is that theirs is more profound, more complex. There may be defeats and ambiguities, but ultimately good is not confused with evil.
That is a contemporary phenomenon. To shed further light on it, let me digress for a moment. After the 2004 election, National Public Radio began broadcasting a program, "Focus on Faith," meant to show that Democrats were religious, too, but naturally the lefty conception of religion was bound to be peculiar. In fact, the program, featuring old lefties and spokesmen for bizarre forms of "spirituality," is resolutely anti-religious. Recently, a "moderate" Republican senator was interviewed so he could denounce legislators who claim their votes are directed by God. The charge is absurd, but I'm sure the senator believes it, because any moral argument immediately rouses the lefty fear of God and religion. One can say that they use the dreaded word "God" to discredit morality. They are desperate to think themselves free of all that. That's why abortion is their most cherished cause--what could show the futility, the irrelevance of morality better than the legal sanction of the slaughter of the innocents?
Which is where morally ambiguous fiction comes in. Literature, like other cultural influences, precedes ideas; it creates habits of mind and heart that build up visions of life, visions that guide and sustain us. The visions inculcated by modern writing have helped to create the amorality of our time. Unfortunately, too many conservatives seem to think politics is the answer,that culture is a sideshow--how wrong they are!
To return to Michael Gilbert. His work is not simplistic (in the sense of my favorite Westerns) nor is it as morally complex as great art. At the end of Waugh's Scoop, William Boot is home at his beloved Boot Magna, writing his countryside column, but we know that the forces represented by the Daily Beast are just over the horizon, and owls are hunting by moonlight. When Father Urban is transformed at the end of Powers' novel, do we have second thoughts? Are we entirely convinced that his worldly wisdom was all false and that his withdrawal is wholly good? Gilbert does not moralize; he creates what seems like a commonplace world (but how interesting it is!) in which characters struggle to right wrongs, to defeat (temporarily at least) evil, and he knows that the ultimate stakes are far larger than any individual crime:
A retired Admiral is musing on the future of two children he has met:
It was going to be a perilously difficult world as, one after another, the old bastions went down: religion, family life, the rule of law. Stormy seas which were going to need to clear to chart the course, and strong hands on the tiller.
The story moves on, and nothing is made of the Admiral's thought, but it is a bit of chilling realism for the reader, a reminder of the fragility of civilization and the moral order. In that one touch, Gilbert shows the depth of seriousness that lies behind his wonderful creations. That's why the world in his books seems so real, so believable.
These are Michael Gilbert's books in order of publication. All are highly recommended except the first one and the last three.
They Never Looked Inside
The Doors Open
Death Has Deep Roots
Death In Captivity
Fear To Tread
Be Shot For Sixpence
Blood And Judgment
After The Fine Weather
The Crack In The Teacup
The Dust And Heat
Game Without Rules
The Etruscan Net
Stay Of Execution
The Body Of A Girl
The Ninety-Second Tiger
The Night Of The Twelfth
Petrella At Q
The Empty House
Death Of A Favourite Girl
Mr. Calder And Mr. Behrens
The Final Throw
The Black Seraphim
The Long Journey Home
Paint, Gold, Blood
Anything For A Quiet Life
The Man Who Hated Banks
The Queen Against Karl Mullen
Ring of Terror
Into Battle *
"The world is a dangerous place to live--not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it." --Albert Einstein