Welcome to another edition of In the Spotlight. Michael Gilbert was one of the more prolific writers of the later Golden Age. He created several crime fiction series, standalone novels and short stories, and it’s more than time some of his work was featured here. Let’s do that today and turn the spotlight on Close Quarters, the first of his Inspector Hazlerigg series.
The story takes place in the English cathedral town of Melchester, and mostly, the cathedral close itself. The Dean of Melchester is concerned by a number of anonymous letters attacking Head Verger Appledown. The attacks on his character get uglier and more public, and the Dean wants an end to it. He’s reluctant to call in the police, but he sees little alternative.
Then, the Dean has what he thinks is a better idea. His nephew, Sergeant Robert ‘Bobby’ Pollock, is with the Metropolitan Police Force. The Dean decides to invite his Pollock for a visit. While he’s there, the Dean intends to talk to him about the case, and see if there’s anything he can suggest. Pollock arrives, and the two discuss the case.
Then, everything changes. Appledown is found murdered one night, and now, the police will have to be called in. Chief Inspector Hazlerigg takes over the case, and he and Pollock, with help from the Dean, begin to ask questions.
Before long, they discover that there’s a lot going on beneath the peaceful surface of the cathedral close. As Hazlerigg and Pollock slowly get to know the people who live and work in the close, they find out that each of them could potentially have a reason to want to kill the victim. They also find out that this case might be connected to a death that took place in the close a year earlier. In the end, and after a few proverbial wrong turns, Hazlerigg and Pollock discover who the killer is, and how it all relates to the anonymous letters and threats, and to the earlier death.
One of the important elements in this novel is Melchester Cathedral and the close. It’s an old establishment, and it’s a community unto itself. Those not familiar with the workings of a cathedral might not think of it, but a number of people are needed for it to operate successfully. There are choirmasters, vergers, canons, vicars, masters in the choir school, and more. As the story goes on, we learn about life in that sort of community, and about what it’s like to live and work there. We also learn about the daily rhythms of a cathedral. The novel was published in 1947, and takes place ten years earlier, so it doesn’t offer a look at contemporary religious life. Rather, it’s a ‘snapshot’ of life in that sort of place at that time.
Another important element in the novel is its Golden Age ‘feel.’ One focus of the investigation, for instance, is on who had an alibi for the time of the murder, and where everyone was. I can say without spoiling the story that there is a focus on who was doing what, and on what everyone saw and heard. This turns out to be important, since at one point, it seems that everyone concerned has an alibi for Appledown’s murder. It doesn’t turn out to be true, of course…
The use of anonymous letters, hidden messages, and other cryptic clues also gives the novel a sense of the Golden Age. Readers who enjoy trying to work out what such clues mean will appreciate that. It’s not spoiling the story to say that there’s even a hidden crossword puzzle that provides important information.
Because the close is its own small community, the focus is on the characters who live there. In fact, Gilbert draws a proverbial circle around that group, because the close is locked at night, and there’s a constable, Sergeant Brumfitt, who keeps watch on who goes in and out. The interactions among the characters, and their histories, play important roles in the story, so Hazlerigg and Pollock spend their share of time untangling those relationships.
This isn’t, strictly speaking, a police procedural, although both Hazlerigg and Pollock are on the police force. That said, though, the mystery is solved through gathering evidence and making sense of it, through discussions with witnesses and suspects, and through following up on alibis. Hazlerigg is painstaking, and alibis do matter in this novel, so there is a great of attention paid to those details. Readers who enjoy the challenge of having to be alert for inconsistencies will appreciate the chance to ‘match wits’ with Gilbert. Hazlerigg is also a reflective sort of an investigator, as is Pollock. So there is time spent discussing and thinking about where all of the threads of the case might lead.
This approach to storytelling is reflected in the novel’s pace. Readers who prefer a very fast-paced novel with lots of narrow escapes and ‘danger around every corner’ will notice this. Rather, Gilbert builds suspense through the creation of an eerie atmosphere, in which weather conditions, the cathedral itself, and the surrounding buildings, play roles. There are some scary moments, too. And there’s a hint of claustrophobia, since the cathedral close is a small, closed community. This, too, adds to the suspense of the novel.
Close Quarters has many of the hallmarks of a Golden Age novel. There are alibis, questions of time, a limited and suspicious group of characters, and cryptic clues. It features a distinctive setting, a cathedral with a personality of its own if I may put it that way, and a group of people who find themselves caught in an ugly case of murder. And it introduces a tenacious detective who is determined to get to the truth of the matter. But what’s your view? Have you read Close Quarters? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 16 October/Tuesday, 17 October – Blind Goddess – Anne Holt
Monday, 23 October/Tuesday, 24 October – The Mask of Dimitrios/A Coffin For Dimitrios – Eric Ambler
Monday, 30 October/Tuesday 31 October – Above Suspicion – Lynda La Plante