Back in January, I returned to the work of Michael Gilbert and looked at his first mystery novel, Close Quarters (1947), which introduced his series-detectives, Chief Inspector Hazlerigg and Sergeant Pollock, in a commendable debut full of promise – marred only by a somewhat wobbly ending. Close Quarters is nonetheless a praiseworthy first stab at the detective genre with a skillfully handled plot in which all the suspects have seemingly interlocking alibis. So decided to move a few more of his novels up the big pile.The Killing of Katie Steelstock (1980), originally published in the UK as Death of a Favourite Girl, is a standalone and reputedly is one of his finest pieces of detective fiction. A classically-styled and structured detective novel subversively presented as a fairly typical, modern police procedural that "pulled off quite a few gasp inducing twists in the final chapters." While I've been aware of The Killing of Katie Steelstock ever since reading The Danger Within (1952), I'm glad I held off with reading it until now. I would not have appreciated it half as much without having sampled the work of other traditionalists in contemporary garb, like Douglas Clark and Roger Ormerod.
Katie Steelstock is a young, good looking village girl from West Hannington whose modeling career in London began landing her small, well paid parts in commercials and eventually became the face of The Seven O'Clock Show. An all-family quiz show that "combined general knowledge, popular music and a touch of sex" that turned Katie into "the two-dimensional friend of a million three-dimensional families" and "pin-up for a million adolescents." Katie's "bubbling, self-confident, friendly extrovert personality" transformed her into a nationwide TV celebrity, but she had a darker side to her character as "she liked to have people on the end of a string" that "she could give it a twitch from time to time and watch them dance." A pastime that can be very dangerous when done to the wrong people.
Although she works in London, Katie mostly resided in West Hannington with her mother Olivia and her two younger brothers, Walter and Peter, where she converted a former coachman's cottage into a private living quarters – giving her "that bit of privacy that all real artists need.” The Killing of Katie Steelstock begins on the day of the Boat and Tennis Club dance, which gave the story a hint of that old-world atmosphere of the Golden Age village mystery, introducing most of the important players in the tragedy discovered later that evening. The body of Katie is found lying near the boathouse with her head bashed in and it immediately becomes clear the local Chief Inspector Dandridge is completely out of his depth. An outraged Olivia Steelstock, sister of the Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions, pulls some strings and only takes a few phone calls for Detective Chief Superintendent Charlie Knott to be dispatched to West Hannington.
Superintendent Charlie Knott, "one of the self-appointed stars of the Murder Squad," appears on first glance to have a passing resemblance to the Great Detectives of yesteryear ("squat white-haired figure" with "an orchestration of grunts which could mean anything"). But appearances can be deceiving. Knott is one of those fallible police detectives ("...not an intellectual man"), like Inspector Morse, but "he could grasp the shape and outline of any crime he was called on to investigate." Was the criminal of professional or amateur or the nature of the motive, which is an instinct which had very rarely let him down. Knott's instinct points towards a local journalist, Jonathan Limbery, who uses the weekly Gazette as a pulpit for his outspoken views on authority ("he dislikes everybody who's older than he is, or better off"). Something that made him very popular with the schoolboys of the village whom he taught at Coverdales, before getting sacked. He was also involved with Katie and his alibi is not exactly fireproof. Knott is not the only the policeman investigating the case. Detective Sergeant Ian McCourt, "a cocky type who would be inclined to strike out a line on his own," which he does as he begins to investigate a big name in the village, George Mariner, while Sergeant Esdaile attempts to track down a typewriter – used to type the note that lured Katie to the boathouse. There's always the London end of the case and the scumbag photographer, Rodney "Rod the Sod" Ruoff, who helped Katie get her big break in show business. Not to mention two additional bodies drifting along in the background that (needlessly) muddy the waters even further.
The Killing of Katie Steelstock is unmistakably told in that dark, gritty tone of the modern crime novel and presented as an up-to-date police procedural with the detectives taking fingerprints, making plaster casts of tire tracks and throwing out now quaint little references to 1980s computer technology. Novels from this period involving computers (e.g. Ellen Godfrey's Murder Behind Locked Doors, 1988) have acquired this historical quaintness over the past few decades, but meshes well with the traditional, Golden Age-style plot hidden underneath its modern-day trappings and characters. A plot that eventually culminating in a very brief, but intense, roller coaster of a courtroom drama with some unexpected, truly tragic turn of events. Gilbert invested in his characters to get this payoff, before telling the reader who really killed Katie Steelstock in the last chapter. A very well hidden murderer and somewhat of an old dodge, but you can work out the murderer's identity and motive from the clues and information dropped throughout the story. Admirably, Gilbert made the reader sympathize with the murderer, as a person, without condoning or minimizing the murders. Katie was hardly an angel, but even her worse actions hardly justified bashing in her skull. On the other hand, I didn't think Limbery deserved any sympathy as he's the only character who really deserved a caning by the end. Gilbert not only knew his way around a tricky plot, but a maze of human emotions as well. It gives a glimpse of what the Golden Age detective story could have turned into had it been allowed to evolve naturally pass the 1950s.
There are, however, one or two technical imperfections that need to be mentioned as they kept the book from a place in the first rank. One such problem is the mysterious murder weapon linking two of the murders, "a hole in his head which had been made by the same weapon which killed Katie," but the weapon in question is never even identified! I suspect the second body with an identical head wound was included to even the playing field for the defense later on in the story. That was a mistake. Just having Katie's murder would have stacked the odds in favor of the prosecution and added more tension to the courtroom scenes, but no matter how strong their case looks, the prosecution's case would have collapsed no matter what. So why not take advantage of it by making it look like the defense has no chance whatsoever? And it would have given that tragic twist even more of an impact. I also frowned a little at the fingerprint business towards the end, but liked how Gilbert foreshadowed it (SPOILER/ROT13: “Lbh bhtug gb xrrc hc gb qngr va gur grpuavdhrf bs lbhe cebsrffvba”). I think it would have helped, if the reader was shown part of the ending instead of being told about it afterwards.
But regardless of those minor, plot-technical imperfections, The Killing of Katie Steelstock is an excellent, updated take on the good, old British village mysteries of the past (c.f. Nicholas Brady's Ebenezer Investigates, 1934) told as a then contemporary police procedural – one that did not shy away from being uneasy or downright unpleasant. It's sole drawback is that it could have been an even tighter story with a bigger impact had the two other murders been cut out of the plot, but, as it stands, it can match the best works from the previously mentioned Douglas Clark and Roger Ormerod.