Death in Captivity


Author : Michael Gilbert

Play : Death in Captivity

First Broadcast on : 4 June 1966


A cracking wartime adventure yarn providing a WW2 Italian prison camp setting for a murder detective story. A 'stoolie' is found murdered in unusual circumstances and the British C.O. tasks Capt 'Cuckoo' Goyles to investigate.

Amid the stiff upper lips, double barrels and silly nicknames for the 'chaps', our man Cuckoo 'listens to everybody and confides in nobody'; a technique he learned as an avid reader of detective novels himself.

The investigation coincides with an escape attempt as Italy's war effort collapses. The dominance of 'class' is quite illustrative. It's an 'Officer's Only' camp served by the working class orderlies who inevitably are the prime suspects. The interrogation technique favoured by the kangaroo court is to establish which public school was attended and then to identify which 'house'.

To be fair to Mr Gilbert he does point out the vast majority of prisoners dont want to escape and even resent efforts to do so; especially when this involves sacrificing their home-made roulette wheel.

Worth reading for the possibly unique setting for a 'detective' novel and it does race along.

Michael Gilbert was born in 1912, which makes him pretty much the oldest of the old grandmasters of English mystery novelists who have survived to the end of the 20th century (Eric Ambler was another, and he just passed away in 1999). His books range from classic detective stories, courtroom dramas, police procedurals, to espionage, but they all have his characteristic voice (and a lot of recurring characters, even though he doesn't stick to any one hero for more than a book or so). I don't know his biography but can guess the background from how he defines his 'good man': British Public School educated, literate (and he has him spout great obscure poetry), rugby-player (or boxing champion who hasn't had his brains knocked out, also a good player of squash), learned in the law or something similar, a WW2 veteran who had a Good War, an expert Bridge player -- things like that. He died in 2006 at the ripe age of 94, given his sporting prowess he must hyave been lean and fit which undoubtedly helped is longevity. But what if you are overweight and lead a sedantry life, well perhaps you should consider life insurance for overweight people. Something Mr Gilbert didn't need to consdier.

His books, no matter what sub-genre of mystery they are in, all exhibit the same satirical sense of humor and neat sense of bad vs. good. His knowledge of northern Italy and Austria is comprehensive enough to show that he knows it as much as he does London and the legal system. Extremely literate, Gilbert is not irritatingly coy about it like Innes or Dexter. His cases involving trials are as good as Cyril Hare's, and much more amusing. He is perhaps the best of the "Post-War" writers in the classic golden-age sense, because even in his thrillers there is always a mystery plot.