In The Spotlight: Michael Gilbert’s Close Quarters

Hello, All,

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


Filed under Close Quarters, Michael Gilbert

25 responses to “In The Spotlight: Michael Gilbert’s Close Quarters

  1. So glad you picked this as I recently bought a copy – thanks Margot

  2. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Michael Gilbert – so thank you (I think!) for introducing me to another Golden Age writer.

  3. I’m intrigued by the idea of a hidden crossword puzzle – that alone has it going on the wishlist!

  4. tracybham

    Good to see this, Margot. I recently read Close Quarters and Smallbone Deceased (no review yet). I really like Gilbert’s writing style.

  5. Michael Gilbert is one of the authors on my classic crime challenge list, but not for this novel – for Smallbone Deceased. I haven’t come across him before except for one short story in one of the BL anthologies – in fact, coincidentally the one I reviewed today. Funny how sometimes authors seem to suddenly appear in various places all at the same time!

    • I know what you mean, FictionFan! That’s happened to me, too. I’ve read a few of Gilbert’s short stories, and been very glad I did. I think he does do a solid job of creating characters and atmosphere, so I’m glad you took the chance to read Smallbone Deceased. If you read this one, I hope you’ll like it.

  6. Col

    I have something by him Margot, but not this one. I’m minded to shuffle him up the pile a bit.

  7. Spade & Dagger

    Unfortunately, I haven’t found his books in our local libraries or on Kindle (& I have never seen one in a second hand bookshop), so I have yet to read one.
    (Michael Gilbert is the father of Harriet Gilbert, who presents A Good Read on BBC Radio 4 in the UK & is a crime mystery fan often selecting interesting books as her Good Read choice.)

  8. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Michael Gilbert’s book, Close Quarters, is in the spotlight on the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog.

  9. Margot, this may not be a police procedural, as you say, but most detectives and policemen the world over solve mysteries the way Hazlerigg and Pollock do here — “gathering evidence and making sense of it, through discussions with witnesses and suspects, and through following up on alibis” — going back to basics, so to speak.

    • That’s quite true, Prashant, they do. This particular novel doesn’t have scenes that take place at the police station, or the police ‘patch wars’ you sometimes see in police procedurals. But it does feature the police solving crime in that ‘police procedural’ sort of way.

  10. Thanks, Margot, for introducing me to a Golden Age author with whom I am not familiar. I’ll see if I can find his work somewhere. BTW, I had some issues with Blogger, and in my attempt to fix the issues I damaged and deleted my blog; however, determined to keep going in spite of everything, I’ve revived the blog — with a slightly different http address — and the “inaugural” posting appears this morning. The posting’s theme — madness — seems apropos for me these days. Here is the address:

    • Thank you, Tim, for sharing your new address. Sometimes technology gets the best of us, doesn’t it? If you do get a chance to read Gilbert’s work, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  11. neeru

    Dear Margot

    What a fine review. It made me immediately look up for this book and I was glad to find it @ Open Library. Have begun reading it and am enjoying it.

  12. Haven’t read this one yet, Margot but based on your review I’ll be getting a copy soon. I’ve just recently discovered the work of Michael Gilbert and I am enjoying his books VERY much. Nice to discover such a talented writer this late in the game.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Yvette. I’m very glad you enjoyed this analysis. Gilbert was talented, in my opinion, and his work is well worth exploring. I hope you’ll continue to like what you read of his stories.

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