The Michael Gilbert titles reprinted in the British Library Crime Classics series were so good that I'm keeping an eye out for more of his books. There are plenty of them around, but they're not particularly cheap for secondhand, or attractive (sorry House of Stratus, but your covers are not appealing) which is enough to remind me how tight my budget is.
All of which is probably a good thing because space is even tighter, and the amount of books I should read next is getting ridiculous. Turning up the occasional Gilbert will be a proper treat at this rate. One that I did find was ‘Mr Calder & Mr Behrens’, a collection of short stories that follow the careers of two secret service types.
The first story deals with an episode in Mr Behrens war history - it's a failed assassination attempt on Hitler, the last brings us up to possibly the beginning of the 1980’s (this was originally published in 1982) with the two men deciding to retire after one last job which also has a Hitler connection.
I'm not clear if these stories were written together as a collection, or gathered together over a number of years, but they're roughly chronological from the war time start, through Cold War paranoia about sleepers and spies, the dangers of slightly crazy military types determined to be a danger to the public, before tackling the IRA, would be gangsters, radical student politics, and neo nazis.
I had a slow start with this one, the Hitler assassination plot didn't give much room for Gilbert's lurking sense of humour, which is one of the things that make him such a good writer. A couple of episodes in and the book really warms up though.
Calder and Behrens are mild enough looking middle aged men, but they're both utterly ruthless in pursuing their ends, and make no bones about disposing of people. They're state sanctioned murderers. Mostly what they do is business, sometimes there's a personal edge to it.
The end result is a collection that never allowed me to be to complacent - there's the odd flash of dry humour used like a seasoning, episodes of starkly efficient violence used in much the same way, and overall a feeling that it might have worked a lot like this.
The thing I really like about Gilbert's books though is the sense of his personality that comes through his writing. His general attitudes hold up well against modern sensibilities which is a bonus but there's more to it than that. It's a general conviction that I’d be delighted to find myself sitting next to this man at dinner. I really don't understand why his books fell off the radar in the way that they have. He's far to good to be missed out on.