I read crime fiction as my default escape, or when I am just too tired or stupid to cope with meatier fare. But I try and stay within the bounds of good, intelligent writing - a mere page turner without style or sense just annoys me and cannot hold my attention. A writer my mother introduced me to, on the edges of crime fiction, is Michael Gilbert. I understand he was a solicitor who wrote his books on the train to and from work each day. His output was prodigious, and the quality therefore can be a bit variable - but his mastery of a simple, compelling narrative is always evident. He eschews sex completely, and his violence is very restrained by today's standards; his books are thrillers, often with a significant legal element, and often interested in the relations between men and women who want different things.
He wrote at a time - from 1947 until the late 1990s - when the order of things was changing fast. As a result, he can sometimes seem a little old-fashioned, but he understands how the world was moving, and some of his stories deal with very modern issues - organised, violent crime; corruption in high places; and the psychologically perverted criminal. He does not write about just one detective or other central figure, though several characters recur. Much of his huge output is out of print (though I can't believe that will remain the case for long) but is readily and cheaply available in secondhand shops and on sites like Abebooks. Let me recommend you a few (though I've had to leave out a number of real favourites):
- Smallbone Deceased (1950) A classic murder yarn in a legal setting; some wry observation and a good twist - and some wonderful post-war detail.
- Young Petrella (1988) Short stories about the early career of a very unusual detective constable. Great fun.
- Night of the Twelfth (1976) A dark, clever book, in which two stories get mixed up -but it's hard to know which is which.
- Long Journey Home (1985) A casual decision not to re-join a plane leads to a fascinating story of Italy, industrial espionage and a brutal denouement in England. A commercial story with crime at its heart.
- Close Quarters and Black Seraphim (1947, 1983) Two fine crime novels from the heart of the great tradition, set in an ecclesiatical setting, one with a powerful clerical cast, one with a real puzzle at its centre.
- Mr Calder and Mr Behrens (1982) More short stories, this time about two unusually qualified special agents. Urbane, cultured, and quite deadly. The show is occasionally stolen by Rasselas, a Persian deerhound.