Close quarterspublished 1947
Black Seraphimpublished 1983
Michael Gilbert is very popular with, and highly-rated by, crime fiction fans, but (I would suggest) not much known outside that grouping. My friend Noah Stewart did a fascinating post about this author recently, which showed me that I hadn’t read as much of the Gilbert list as I thought: and,another friend, TracyK also bears some responsibility for this post, as explained below.
The two books under discussion are from opposite ends of Gilbert’s career: Close Quarters was his first mystery novel, and then he revisited the setting for a book more than 35 years later. Strangely there is almost no carryover between the two books: there is the odd mention of a character here or there, but very little else, and the geography of the town and Cathedral is somewhat generic.
I had been meaning to re-read both of these, and was pushed into action by Tracy over at Bitter Tea and Mystery, who recently enjoyed the second book – she’d read the first one some time earlier.
She had said ‘When reading Close Quarters I was at a loss as to the relationships of the residents of the Cathedral. I had heard of vicars, but knew nothing of deans and archdeacons and canons and vergers.’
Ever the busybody, I told her this:
I live in a Cathedral town like the one in the two books, and after a long time I finally have an idea about how it works - the key is always that the Bishop is very senior, but the Dean has all the power IN the Cathedral, and the Archdeacon annoys everyone.
Melchester is very much like the town I live in, though the Cathedral in the books is much more cut off from the town. Which of course makes it much more convenient for a mystery writer – you can create a small community, you can assure the reader there is no way in or out except via the main entrance, you can have someone living right next to the one door, who can make a note of everyone coming in or out. As I also told Tracy:
All Cathedrals in the UK have a 'close', and I live very near to the Close in my home town - it's the area around the Cathedral, would probably have been walled originally, and contains the houses where the Dean and senior clergy live. It is usually a very attractive, pretty, green area - and anyone can walk freely through it. Our own one is a very welcoming area, with events staged there all the time. Locals use it as a cut-through, or lounge around there and socialize if the weather is nice. It is a lovely open space in the middle of the town.
NOT going to happen in Melchester.
Both books have a visiting young man to help out with the sleuthing. Gilbert’s series investigator, Chief Inspector Hazelrigg, who appeared in six books, has his first outing in Close Quarters: I could have used him as one of the literary detectives to write about for our Tuesday Night Club, but really there would be insufficient to say about him. One of the features of Gilbert’s books is that he never settled for one major sleuth, but wrote very different books with very different setting. Hazelrigg is as near as he came to a series characters.
So – to the individual books.
is a very traditional mystery: although produced in 1947 it reads as though Gilbert might even have written it much earlier, and
NOT REALLY WHAT ANYONE COULD CONSIDER A SPOILER, AND HAVING NO BEARING ON THE PLOT
- I am having a qualm about saying this, but it doesn’t seem to affect anything – Close Quarters is actually set in 1937, though for some reason Gilbert doesn’t reveal that till the final sentence of the book.
I found the traditional aspects of the book a bit musty – the maps of the cathedral, the crossword puzzle clue (for goodness sake!), and the hearty public school atmosphere. Gilbert became a lot more nuanced later. There is also a great underuse of female characters, apart from the memorable Mrs Judd. It’s a clever crime story, but fairly emotionless.
I think Tracy liked it better than I did, and Noah also liked it, and has a full and comprehensive review here. And Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist has also turned her spotlight on it, here.
The Black Seraphim
Gilbert comes out into the town from the Cathedral a lot more in this one, and the plot concerns possible corruption in local government.
When Noah was reviewing another Gilbert book recently, I said this in the comments:
I always enjoy Michael Gilbert books, but he does throw me a bit. Sometimes there is an authorial god-like attitude to right and wrong, and sometimes that is then subverted in the ending. And sometime it isn’t. I have just read another Gilbert on local government, and was hoping for subversion over the wonderful traditionalists vs dirty lefties, the horrible trade unions, and the low class people who think they can make some money. No subversion, and as an unreconstructed old leftie I found myself wanting to argue with Gilbert – sometimes things aren’t as simple as he makes out. I mean, heaven forbid that we might NEED low cost housing if it spoils some entitled person’s view of the fields. It’s not necessarily Satan’s work.
… and yes, Black Seraphim was the story I got annoyed with. It is CRASHINGLY snobbish, and very sneering about trade unions in a very simplistic way. There is an interesting reference back to the days of Thomas Beckett and the division between church and state (a topic of some interest on the blog in the past). It seemed plain that Gilbert and the Dean were on the opposite side to me in this case.
In the end it was an interesting story, and a good picture of 1980s life in the UK, but there are other Gilbert books that I would be much more enthusiastic about – The Night of the Twelfth, Smallbone Deceased.
The cleric on the green lawn is by Rex Whistler, from the Athenaeum site.
The other picture is of a Canon Gowing, by Edwin Arthur Ward, also from the Athenaeum. Naturally this respectable man was not connected with any wicked goings-on in any Cathedral Close.