[Solicitor Nap Rumbold has a very short time in which to try to find evidence of a client’s innocence. He needs to investigate events in the past in war-time France.]
Meanwhile Nap had discovered the Bureau de Lorraine…
He found a room marked ‘Reception’ and looked in.
Seated behind a desk, sole occupant of the room, was a girl. She looked up, saw Nap, and smiled. It did not need the new copy of Le Figaro in her hand or the elaborately-simple, beautifully conceived clothes. The face itself was sufficient to place her within ten square miles of the world’s surface. Only one capital city could produce that deepest of dark brown hair, with high-lights of black , that white neck solidly angled to the shoulders yet too well-proportioned to seem thick: Siamese cat’s eyes of very light blue, which were so rarely found with such black hair.
Nap realized that he was staring, but that the girl seemed unembarrassed by this circumstance.
Possibly she was used to people staring at her.
‘Can I be of assistance?’
commentary: As so many times before, the crime writer, crime fiction expert (and blogfriend) Martin Edwards is the direct cause of my picking this book up. Recently on his blog he reviewed Guilty? (aka By Whose Hand?) a 1956 film based on Death Has Deep Roots – see the blogpost here. I was sufficiently intrigued to order a DVD of the film, and was also very happy to find that I had a copy of the book already – first read more than 20 years ago. So I wallowed in film and book, enjoying both enormously.
Martin says with perfect truth that it is odd that more of Gilbert’s books weren’t filmed or televised – they seem like ideal material. This one is a corker, with a great setup. Victoria, a young Frenchwoman working in a London hotel, has been accused of murdering one of the guests – a man known to her previously, when they and several other characters were all working for the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation in WW2.
Victoria mistrusts her legal team, and changes them at the last minute – bringing in the oddly-named Nap, above. He and a friend do some hands-on investigating, while his father and the barrister fight the case in court, trying to slow it down for the last-minute evidence to emerge. So alternate chapters feature the excitements and tension of a major murder trial, and then the adventures of the investigators – from low-life London dives, to an army camp on Salisbury Plain, to a trip to the French countryside where the crime does indeed have its roots.
It is completely gripping, with occasional excellent flashes of humour, and some wonderful scene-setting and character-drawing. I loved the delicate question when a witness has emerged, something of a good-time girl:
‘Her name is Irene, and she sings when she can get an engagement.’One of my favourite Michael Gilbert books is the astonishing Night of Twelfth, an absolute tour de force, and also a tremendous picture of a fictional boys’ prep school, lightly sketched. This book has another such school – it only appears in a couple of pages, and it could have been omitted altogether, but the pages of description are hilarious and completely convincing and made me laugh out loud in a crowded train. This also made me check out Gilbert’s biography: I think of him as a lawyer, but yes he did earlier work as a teacher – I had decided he MUST have done to write so well about schools. Here there is a teacher who pretends to have been a conscientious objector during the War, because the boys would get over-excited if they knew he had been a Commando.
‘No she isn’t. I don’t say that if times got hard she mightn’t be, but at the moment, in my opinion, she’s just an honest little trouper without much stuffing.’
Nap goes on from there to call in unexpectedly on a young housewife. She shows him into the sitting-room then disappears for a couple of minutes: She came back having ‘done the mysterious things which women do to themselves on such occasions [so as to] look ready to entertain a duchess.’
One character, the missing soldier Julian, is seen entirely through others’ views of him, particularly women’s views. He is no stereotype – he is not the dashing Don Juan type, but it is clear he has a way with women, and he becomes very real to the reader.
It’s these little touches that make Gilbert’s books so charming and memorable, as well as his good plots and excellent legal details. I think he gives a magical picture of London, and of 1951 lowlife as well as the legal world. I also like the incidental details – Nap, starving, gets some sandwiches in the hope of eating them at his desk, but is called out urgently and has to go off elsewhere. Nowadays we would assume he would take the sandwiches with him and eat them in the street or in the taxi – but that was obviously impossible for a respectable young chap in 1951, so he ditches them, offers them to his secretary. Five guineas to any contemporary author who is able to put a detail that perfect & authentic into a historical book… It's the manners that they get wrong, as I think my blogfriend Lucy Fisher would agree.
My only complaint about the book was that it wrapped up too quickly, I’d have liked a bit more detail about what happened subsequently to the various characters.
I then watched the film, which was also very enjoyable, though with a simplified plot, and somewhat less nuance in the characters. But the trial scenes were great fun to watch – are there any bad films set in courtrooms? – so hard for it NOT to be compelling.
So thanks again to Martin for the push, and h/t to Chrissie Poulson who got me re-reading Night of the Twelfth two years ago.
The picture is from an ancient strange book called Girls of Paris which I picked up secondhand. She is actually reading the fashion magazine Elle rather than Figaro….
For more from Michael Gilbert, Martin Edwards, Chrissie Poulson or Lucy Fisher, click on the labels below.