Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The Night of the Twelfth by Michael Gilbert



published 1976


Night of the Twelfth



[A private boys’ school: Mr Manifold has replaced another teacher, Millison, who had problems with the boys]

‘I hear you pulverised One-B,’ said Alastair McMurtrie.

Manifold inspected the seven boys who made up One-A. Most of them he could already identify. McMurtrie, freckled, snub-nosed, well-developed, with the build of a second-row forward. Jared Sacher, a dark beauty with alarmingly intelligent eyes. Peter Joscelyne, small, quiet and withdrawn. The Warlock brothers, totally unlike each other, yet each with a hint of their father’s often-photographed face. The fat boy with the permanent smile must be Monty Gedge and that left – forgotten the name – father a barrister – Paxton. Terence Paxton.
‘We had quite a lively first meeting,’ he agreed…

‘They’re a bunch of stupid kids,’ said Sacher. ‘It was only that Mr Millison was such an ass. I’m sorry, sir. But he was. You know what started the rot? It was in Scripture. One of them asked him what a harlot was. Well, really! That’s been a standing joke for years. All he had to say was, it’s the biblical name for a tart and they’d have known where they were.’

‘What did he say?’

‘According to those that were present he blushed and said, “Well, Paine, it’s – um - a girl who has – er – lost her way.” After that they pulled his leg until it nearly came off. When anyone on one of his walks took a wrong turning, they used to shout in unison, “Come back, you harlots”.’



observations: When Christine Poulson and I shared our lists of favourite books set in schools (last week, see here and here), neither of us included this one – but Christine remembered it later and mentioned it in a comment, so I decided to read it, and am still quite thrown by it. It is a strange mixture of a traditional school mystery (lots of funny dialogue, rather wonderful young teacher, very knowing and precocious but delightful boys) and a thriller – the son of the Israeli Ambassador is a pupil, and there could be danger – and something more weird: there are signs that a sadistic killer on the loose.

It’s a lot to fit in in a short book, but Gilbert does a masterly job of combining these strands, and has some excellent diversionary tactics, which only strike you when you think about the story afterwards – and I thought about it quite a lot. There are interesting discussions in the staff-room about corporal punishment, and a lot of attempts at psychological diagnosis. I ambled along with the plot, finding the thriller aspects and police investigation much less entertaining than the scenes in the school, and I had spotted a few good clues - and then the final quarter kept me pinned to my seat as I desperately wanted to know what was going to happen, in a way that I don’t often feel. Christine described the book as chilling, and it certainly was - positively unnerving at times.

The 14-year-old boys plan to drink some vodka as an end-of-term treat, which surprised me as much as the murders: a half-bottle cost £1.80, relatively a lot more than it would cost now - in modern terms that’s something like £17.

The boys are going to stage a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and my one criticism is that very little is made of this, it has no relevance to the plot. (Josephine Bell’s Death at Half-Term also deals with a performance of  Twelfth Night in a school).

This is a clever and very entertaining book, it is very funny at times, and Gilbert leads you astray in the smartest of Christie-like ways – you make assumptions about all kinds of things…

Michael  Gilbert's Smallbone Deceased - from 1950, nearer the beginning of his remarkable and lengthy writing career - is on the blog here

The picture is from the New South Wales archives.











22 comments:

  1. Moira, definitely an author I hope to read, especially since reading other reviews of his books, including on Tracy blog, I think.

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    1. Yes, I think Tracy was very keen on his one set in a POW camp, Death in Captivity. His books vary a lot, both in settings and in quality, but when he's on form, as he was here, he is very very good.

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  2. Moira - This does sound like an interesting one. I love the setting as you can guess, and the dialogue you shared is great. And I do like the idea that the book takes up a few larger school-relevant topics (like corporal punishment). Sounds like something I ought to look out for...

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    1. Yes indeed, I think you would like this one. A great combination of traditional crime story, and a thriller, and a look at the (then) contemporary times.

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  3. I think this is a really strong book, one of the best by a very entertaining writer.

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    1. Yes Martin, as I said in an answer above, they vary a lot, but this was one of the best, very memorable and thought-provoking, and extremely clever.

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  4. I've been reading Michael Gilbert for years and own practically all his books. And she never mentions the relationship, but his daughter Harriet Gilbert is, I think, one of our finest broadcasters. Now you've reminded me I think a re-read of 'The night of the Twelfth' is in order

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    1. Thanks - I didn't know that, though I do know of Harriet Gilbert and have read one of her novels. And this book has made me want to read a lot more of Michael Gilbert....

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  5. I plan to read more books by Gilbert. I have 5 or 6 but the only one I have heard of before is Smallbone Deceased. This one sounds good.

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    1. I am definitely going to do some re-reading - perhaps starting with Death in Captivity, which you reminded me of last year.

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  6. Sounds like I would enjoy it, but I'll stick with the couple I have - Death in Captivity and Roller-Coaster and try and get to them instead.

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    1. This man is so prolific - I've never even heard of Rollercoaster. Death in Captivity is good.

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    1. Definitely! It is so much of its time, I think you'd like it.

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  8. One of his late books, The Queen against Karl Mullen, is one of my favourites. It received virtually no attention, which disappointed him, and was a great shame. I'm also a big fan of The Crack in the Teacup and The Dust and the Heat.

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    1. He's definitely under the radar and in need of a revival I think. Though I see that a lot of them are available on Kindle which is good news. I think I'm in for some solid reading with these recommendations from fans....

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  9. Have just ordered this to read now... thank you

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    1. I hope you agree with me and enjoy it - I think it's a real forgotten gem.

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  10. I've just re-read it after re-reading another of Michael Gilbert's books, Be Shot for Sixpence. I've read almost all of his (Roller Coaster is still to be read) and he is excellent. Also a wonderful short story writer - the two volumes of spy stories, Mr Calder and Mr Behrens and Game Without Rules are classics, and Anything for a Quiet Life featuring a country solicitor are my favourites.

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    1. It's been so nice to find from this blogpost that he is still remembered and read! He's the crime fiction fan's writer - not so much known to the general public. I am currently re-reading The Empty House. Thanks for coming to comment.

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  11. I read this novel on your recommendation and found it very engaging. What really struck me was the atmosphere of toughening boys up as a part of helping them to grow up: it seemed to be a given that there were going to be difficult and painful things along the way that must be dealt with. The way that the Israeli ambassador responded to one of his son's friends (not to give anything away) was particularly affecting, perhaps more so because I recently read Tana French's The Secret Place, which offers a more contemporary take on tragedy and trouble at a boarding school.

    The only other Gilbert I've read is Smallbone Deceased, because it was recommended as his finest, but I found it not nearly as interesting as The Night of the Twelfth (and now that I read Anne H's comment, I want to get a hold of some of his others!). But for admirers of Smallbone Deceased, I must recommend Murder Must Advertise (Sayers) for even better (to my mind) office politics and intrigue.

    Thank you for continuing these excellent reviews of older books. It's great to find new reads!

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    1. Thanks so much Sappho for your kind words, and I'm glad you liked it! I am still thinking about Night of the Twelfth, some time after I read it - I like Smallbone Deceased, but it is a much simpler world, with a good puzzle. The later book I think Gilbert really tried to engage with the modern world. And yes - I'm always intrigued with the way the casual background often shows about eg how children were brought up. Again, I think he tried for realistic children. I have the Tana French book lined up, and also totally agree with you about Murder Must Advertise, I did a couple of blogposts on it, saying how much I loved its picture of office life.

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