I hope Michael Gilbert is better-known than I think he is. I used to buy his books second-hand in the 1980s — so somebody else must have owned them, right? — but I’ve never heard anyone mention reading them and I’ve never seen them on anybody else’s book shelves. Yet he’s reliably diverting in a no-fuss no-muss English way, and there are thirty of these novels, so allow me to proselytize.
He Didn’t Mind Danger is one of Gilbert’s procedural mysteries, involving the oracular Inspector Hazlerigg of Scotland Yard. The tale, written in 1947, is contemporary. The protagonist is a recently demobilized Scot, Major Angus McCann; tough as nails, at loose ends, and, as per the title, he doesn’t mind danger. Hazlerigg turns to McCann when a “crime-wave” (you get the sense this is a new term) overtaking London seems to involve ex-military personnel. McCann is all too eager to help.
Gilbert writes complex but tidy plots and I’ll only say that this book involves a colorful ring of criminals and that they get nabbed after suitable adventures for everyone. Challenging material this isn’t. However it is both witty and heart-felt. On one page, Hazlerigg explains to McCann what’s at stake:
‘At the moment England is living on credit… We’re getting business from outsiders because they trust us. I don’t only mean trade orders but insurance, banking, international selection trusts, the sort of thing we’ve been living on for years because we represent absolute stability in a world of shifting currencies and repudiated debts. This is only a little thing so far but — the British insurance rate for movables went up ninepence in the pound this month.’
Suddenly we’re back in a world where England has to claw back to stability after years at war, and where no help can be expected from a Europe still emerging from the wreckage. The casual references to military service and war damage are striking because Gilbert takes them so much for granted.
But I have to admit it’s Gilbert’s sense of humor I enjoy above all. He has a detached and tolerant view of human nature, which allows him to toss around passages like this one, summing up McCann’s opinion of the English secret service:
On one occasion, previous to the Sicily Landing, he and other officers in his Battalion had listened to a security lecture from a stout major from M.I.5. He had been very impressed by the major’s manner, and had surmised that his rather stupid façade must conceal a brilliant and ruthless intellect. Later, on the same day, in Mess, he had played poker with the gentleman in question, and doubts had crept in.”
“Doubts had crept in.” No doubt in my mind, though, about Michael Gilbert’s value as an entertainer.