Thursday, 7 August 2014

Books of 1952: My Name is Michael Sibley by John Bingham

published in 1952, set in the 1930s





 [Two policemen have called to see Michael Sibley]

The Chief Detective-Inspector was a broad-shouldered man, well above average height… He did not impress me as the sort of man who would have a single one of those endearing little habits or whimsical sayings which are so often attributed to police officer. He wore a reasonably well-cut black pin-stripe suit, a white shirt and hard collar, a dark grey tie, black Homberg hat, and carried dark brown gloves and a black brief-case.
The Detective-Sergeant was a very different type.

He was slim and dark, aged about 32, and when he spoke I noted that his voice still retained a slight Welsh lilt. His face was naturally sallow, the nose rather
pronounced. His eyes were large and dark, and the wore a clipped military-style moustache. To offset his grey flannel suit, he wore a green tie with a thin white stripe, which might have been the tie of some cricket club or school, and brown shoes; he, too, carried gloves.





observations: These two men are going to make Michael Sibley’s life a misery with their relentless questioning, always on the point of tipping over into rudeness and bullying: they are sure he must have killed his long-time friend John Prosset. And the reader isn’t totally sure whether he did or not either…. The title comes from his statements to the police, which he keeps changing.

During the course of the book the narrator Sibley looks back over his awful relationship with the horrible Prosset: as a picture of a controlling, toxic friendship it is depressingly convincing. The book has a moody, gloomy atmosphere – the setting is somewhat like the early books of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time sequence, but the execution is more Graham Greene, and there’s not much cheer or humour in the book at all. Though it is close to amusing on the subject of what a chap out on a date in a provincial town can expect from a young lady: ‘the young men sedulously hand down from one generation to another a convenient theory that the girls are insulted if you don’t try [to kiss them].’ 


I am quite certain the second policeman would not have had a boater and a bow-tie with his grey flannel suit: the picture above is my attempt to cheer the scene up. The gloves are intriguing - I don't know why they were worth a mention in relation to both men, but it's also true that you don't imagine policemen to be wearing them.  

The book is a very well-executed psychological thriller, very well-written, and clever: but too miserable for my tastes.

What was completely riveting was an introduction John Le Carre wrote for a re-issue of the book: if you are inclined to read Michael Sibley – and I think many people reading this would enjoy it very much - be sure to get hold of that edition. And, if you have any interest in Le Carre it is worth reading anyway. He says that the author John Bingham was one of the models for Smiley, but that Bingham hated the books and felt a deep sense of betrayal – not because of the portrayal, of himself, but because of the picture of the intelligence services that LeCarre showed. Le Carre says that Bingham – apparently a very senior old-school spymaster – was a man of great humanity, honour and trustworthiness, with ‘gentle old-fashioned zeal.’ He makes it clear that he doesn’t think Bingham really understood everything that was going on during the Cold War – he was ‘clinging to standards long abandoned by the world around him.’ You can get the book for £1.83 on Kindle at the moment, and it is well worth it just for the introduction.

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This is my entry for Rich Westwood’s choice of the year 1952 for the August meme on his Past Offences blog. (See the fascinating previous roundups of entries: 1963 in June, 1939 in July).

As it happens, in 2012 I looked at a number of 1952 books to mark the Diamond Jubilee in the UK that year. These are the blog entries on crime fiction for that year:

The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey

London Particular by Christianna Brand

Mrs McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie

Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham

-- it was a good year for crime books. In fact I believe that the entry on Tiger in the Smoke led to Rich and I encountering each other for the first time on the blogosphere, so this seems particularly appropriate.

Two more 1952 crime books, on the blog recently:

Beat not the Bones by Charlotte Jay

Murder Maestro Please by Delano Ames

13 comments:

  1. Moira, with or without le Carré's introduction, I'd like to read this book which I think is not "too miserable for my tastes." I have read worse. I liked the traditional description of the chief detective-inspector too. Thanks for the review, Moira.

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    1. I'm sure you will Prashant - as I say above, I think most of my blog friends will really enjoy this one. Hope you do! Are you doing a 1952 book for Past Offences?

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    2. Moira, I'm not doing a 1952 book post as I already have difficulty keeping up with the two memes I participate in, which is Overlooked Films and Friday's Forgotten Books. But mid-20th century is a fascinating period for all kinds of fiction, particularly crime and mystery, thrillers, and westerns.

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    3. Indeed - I love reading books from that era, I love the picture they give of the world then.

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  2. Oooh ...... you've tempted me for all sorts of reasons. I like miserable as long as its not over-long, plus le Carre intrigues me.
    My 1952 read will be one of those mentioned above.

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    1. Col - you could have my copy, except it is an old one that doesn't have the Le Carre intro - I picked that up on Kindle. Let me know.

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    2. Moira, thanks for the offer. I'll regretfully decline on the basis that the book will undoubtedly get buried in the stacks and never see the light of day again. Onto a "maybe 1-day wishlist" it goes for now.

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  3. Moira - This does sound like a story with a dismal atmosphere to it. I've read other books from this era and I think more than one writer was experimenting with psychological darkness that way. But I did like the thread of dark wit in that comment about the first police officer.

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    1. I think it's meant to be tense and unrelieved, and that's fine, though I think Bingham slightly overdid it in this case...

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  4. I do have that edition (in paperback). I have considered reading this book for the 1952 challenge, thus did not read all of your piece in detail. Good to get the warning that it is miserable. I am currently reading The Ivory Grin for 1952.

    Also considering The Singing Sands and Murder Maestro Please. If I decide to read two for the challenge this month.

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    1. I had to look up the Ivory Grin - great title, and sounds good. Look forward to reading your review. I'm wondering whether to read another 1952 book, given I did this one so (comparatively) early in the month. Maybe another John Dickson Carr.

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  5. Really enjoyed this review Moira, thanks - I've not read anything by Bingham and all I have is a volume from I think much later on - must dig it out - ta!

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    1. Give him a try Sergio - I think you might like him. I have read another book by him, and despite complaints above I will probably re-read that one too....

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