Close Quarters (1947) by Michael Gilbert

Michael Gilbert was a British solicitor, author, schoolteacher and veteran who, beginning in the 1930s, served with the Royal Horse Artillery and joined a reserve regiment, the Honourable Artillery Company, during the Second World War – effectively putting his writing ambitions on hold for nearly a decade. Gilbert began working on his first detective novel in 1938, while working as a teacher, but the wacky shenanigans of the Axis Powers delayed the publication of Close Quarters (1947) by nine years.

So, while the war postponed his entry into the genre, Gilbert made up for lost time over the next five decades with twenty-five novels and several short story collections published between 1947 and 2002. There were also a number of posthumously published collections of short stories and radio-plays with The Man Who Couldn't Sleep and Other Mysteries (2011) being the most recent one. Gilbert's output covered everything from traditional detective stories and courtroom dramas to police procedurals and spy-thrillers. A highlight from his work and my personal favorite is Death in Captivity (1952), alternatively published as The Danger Within, which is based on Gilbert's experiences in an Italian POW camp. One of the best World War II mysteries ever written, but Smallbone Deceased (1950), Death Has Deep Roots (1951), The Night of the Twelfth (1976) and The Killing of Katie Steelstock (1980) are generally regarded to be among his best detective novels.

Despite a nine-year delay, Gilbert ended up being one of the longest-lived and published Golden Age mystery writers when he died, aged 93, on February 8, 2006.

Michael Gilbert's apprentice effort, Close Quarters, has been stuck on the big pile for an ice age and I've always been a little hesitant about it, because I remember opinions of the book being a bit dismissive in the late 2000s – comparing it to a glacially slow, overly elaborate Freeman Wills Crofts-style novel. So very talky and too much timetabling. At the time, I only knew of Crofts' tarnished, undeserved reputation as the mystery writer who cured insomnia, but a lot has changed since then and we know better now. What I perceived as criticism at the time was actually a glowing endorsement for a careful, meticulously-plotted detective story with a croft of alibis. It was about time I heeded those old recommendations! 

Close Quarters entirely takes place inside the confides of a cathedral close, Melchester Close, which has recently been plagued by a series of thoroughly unpleasant incidents. Firstly, Canon Whyte had fallen from the gallery on the roof of the cathedral, "a hundred and three measured feet," on to the flagstones below. There was "nothing mysterious or really sensational" about the death of Canon Whyte, besides it being upsetting for all concerned. Secondly, the extraordinary persecution of the head verger, Daniel Appledown. For over a week, the members of the Close community have been receiving anonymous letters, "typewritten and uniformly abusive," decrying the head verger as inefficient and immoral. More of such messages were left all over the Close. The Dean of Manchester is convinced the wolf is within the fold, but finds the thought of getting the police officially involved unpleasant. So he turns to his young nephew, Bobby, who's a member of the Metropolitan Police Force and the right hand man of Gilbert's series-detective, Chief Inspector Hazlerigg.

Sergeant Bobby Pollock comes to Melchester Close to conduct an "extremely unofficial" inquiry under the guise of a short holiday to visit his uncle, but he has been there barely a day when Appledown's body is discovered. Someone bashed his brains in near the shed housing the electric motor which supplied the power for the famous Melchester organ. There are an abundance of potential clues, possible red herrings and plenty of suspects to found within the cathedral close. Pollock described the scene of the crime and the case ahead, "an assassin who walked across the grass backwards, clothes which were too wet, and a bowler hat which was much too dry" and "sixteen little holes in the ground" – "a case after his own heart." Not to forget about the ghost who appeared prematurely! The cast of suspects, witnesses and other characters is very large and thankfully the story comes with a dramatis personae of all the principal clues, which comes with mini-biographies. Something that should be included in every detective story with a sprawling cast of characters, but what Gilbert accomplished with all these characters in regards to their alibis is fascinating. Nearly everyone appears to possess "carefully, interlocking alibis" and only one person was not vouched for the whole time by one or more independent witnesses. Chief Inspector Hazlerigg is not prepared to go as far as to believe in "a complete canonical conspiracy," but finding an alternative explanation requires some good, old-fashioned alibi-busting.

I should mention here Close Quarters is erroneously listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991), "murder in a guarded area where those present are generally alibied," which is probably due to the setting. The Dean points out to Pollock the reason why he believes the anonymous letter writer is closely connected to the cathedral is that "after seven o'clock it is impossible to get in or out of the Close unobserved," because of the twelve-foot high walls and the guard posted at the main gate. A textbook example of the closed-circle of suspects situation and the alibis do not qualify as an impossibility. Not according to my definition of what constitutes an impossible alibi, which also happens to be correct one. Nonetheless, the problem of the alibis is well handled and perhaps, as a whole, closer to the alibi-crackers of Christopher Bush than Freeman Wills Crofts. I can easily imagine Ludovic Travers and Superintendent Wharton marching into Melchester Close to go to work on the parade of clues and alibis (The Case of the Cathedral Close?).

Gilbert reportedly complain in later years that Close Quarters ended up being somewhat cluttered and wonder if he meant the last quarter of the story, which became a bit messy towards the end. It felt like the clear, straightforward narrivate went a little wobbly all of the sudden. A hidden crossword puzzle is discovered with an entire chapter dedicated to solving it. A late and tragic second murder throws the solution Hazlerigg had pieced together out of the window and had to resort to some scheming plotting to trap the murderer, but how much of that slightly wobbly ending can be blamed on a then inexperienced author or what can be blamed on later alterations. For example, the murderer turning out to have been too clever by half, who "started to elaborate on two or three of the points," which is an admittance more in line with the post-war period than the 1937. Just like the murderer refusing to obey the rules of fiction and politely coming clean, before committing suicide.

Either way, Close Quarters is a promising and prodigious first stab at the detective story from an author who would go on to deliver on this promising debut with novels like the all-time classic WWII mystery, Death in Captivity. Particularly recommended to fans of Christopher Bush, Freeman Wills Crofts and Rupert Penny.

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