"Game Without Rules" by Michael Gilbert (published by Penguin Books)

Even the dirty world of spies can entertain

A senior partner in a firm of London solicitors at Lincoln's Inn, Michael Gilbert made good use of the 50-minute commute by train from his home in Kent to write some 500 words each day. This was an art he had learnt in World War Two when, saving electricity as he felt was his duty, he read for his law finals in the light of the Tube, three times round the Circle Line.
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The legal-literary double life wasn’t beyond the capabilities of this one man. Gilbert’s clients ranged from the government of Bahrain to crime novelist Raymond Chandler, with whom he had a lively correspondence, while he eventually entertained his readership with some 30 novels, 183 short stories, four stage plays, plays for radio, and plays and serials for television.

This variety showed him to be equally at home whether penning intricately plotted crime-based thrillers, classic detection involving police-procedural work, or sordid espionage.

Born in Lincolnshire in 1912, Gilbert embarked on his long career as a writer with “Close Quarters” in 1947, a book that took advantage of a short stint as a pre-war schoolmaster. His time as a prisoner of war prompted “Death In Captivity” in 1952, regarded by one critic as surely the only whodunnit set in a PoW camp.

In 1947 he married Roberta Marsden and joined Trower Still & Keeling, where he was a solicitor and then partner from 1952 until his retirement in 1983. The writing didn’t conclude until 1998. It must have taken considerable industry and application to manage it all.

Gilbert’s forays into espionage fiction included “Game Without Rules”, first published in 1962 and many times since. It  has 11 short stories about two elderly counterintelligence agents, Daniel John Calder and Samuel Behrens, seemingly living a quiet life in rural England but actually waiting to be summoned for the next job, probably a dirty one.

They are referred to throughout as Mr Calder and Mr Behrens, and there is apparently a telling subtlety in these nomenclature titles. A little research reveals that Calder, a boy’s name of Scottish origin, means “rough waters” or “stream”, while Behrens is a bit more complicated, seeming to derive from a German architect and coming to mean, by one definition, an answer or solution for all problems or difficulties.

Whatever, Mr Calder’s and Mr Behrens’ exploits show an unflinching look at the ugly and unpleasant world of spying, whether it be something fairly simple or a necessarily ruthless “hit”. A New York Times critic (bow down) ranked the collection as second only in its field to William Somerset Maugham’s “Ashenden” stories. These latter were based in part on Maugham’s own experiences in British Intelligence in Europe during the First World War.

Behrens and Calder get a couple of mock biographies at the start of “Game Without Rules”. Mr Behrens was born in 1910, recruited to MI6 in 1933 and his war service is still classified. He lives with an aunt at The Old Rectory at Lamperdown in Kent and his interests are  beekeeping and chess. Mr Calder was born in 1913, recruited to MI6 in 1935 and his war service is still partly classified. He lives at The Cottage at Hyde Hill near Lamperdown and his interests are small arms, cello and the history of the Peninsular War.

Of unintentional and passing interest for Hungarian readers is that his mother is given as a Hungarian, Sandra Kisfaludy, he worked in Budapest as a Reuters Foreign Correspondent in 1934 and he can speak Standard-Albanian and Hungarian (with some Standard-Greek, Italian, Arabic and Russian too). However, these basic Hungarian connections have no bearing on the 11 stories.

A third short biography is allotted to Rasselas, a Persian deerhound belonging to Mr Calder, and the dog is not to be tangled with, proving his fearsome worth in some stories.

Mr Behrens and Mr Calder appear to be a little past middle age and they exercise considerable skill at passing themselves off as harmless, even witless, country gentlemen. But they have a habit of disappearing from home at times and their neighbours realise there is something out of the ordinary about them.

Such oddities include the buried telephone line that is known to connect The Old Rectory and The Cottage, the elaborate systems of burglar alarms at both homes and the steel plates inside the window shutters at Mr Calder’s, the latter according to Ken, a fellow who had helped in the building work.

But, being countrymen, the locals “talked very little about it, except occasionally among themselves toward closing time. To strangers, of course, they said nothing”.

The two agents’ controller and paymaster is Mr Fortescue, ostensibly the manager of the Westminster branch of the London and Home Counties Bank. A square, sagacious-looking man, no one would mistake him for anything other than a bank manager, although in fact he has certain other quite important functions, such as brutally eliminating enemies.

He runs “a bunch of middle-aged cutthroats” known as “E” (or External) Branch of the Joint Services Standing Intelligence Committee. The Prime Minister has supreme responsibility for all Security matters, and “If there’s a job which is so disreputable that none of the departments will handle it, we give it to ’E’ Branch”.

In the opening story of “Game Without Rules”, “The Road to Damascus” (24 pages), Mr Behrens confronts a traitor out in the woods while Mr Calder covers his colleague with a rifle. Mr Calder has to shoot the man dead and they bury him, hurrying because it’s getting dark and near tea time.

In “On Slay Down” (11 pages) a woman has to be killed in cold blood and there can be no question of judicial process (game without rules, indeed). It’s a sad commentary on the younger generation, says Mr Calder, that a man of his age has to be sent to do such a job. Again, he’s a good shot. Now that that’s over, where is the backgammon board?

“The Spoilers” is a lengthier 45 pages and action is required after 17 public servants have been driven out over time. When a young woman uses a high-pressure steam hose to settle the hash of one of the miscreants (“A jet of scalding steam, thin and sharp as a needle… He went forward onto his knees. The hose followed him down, searing and stripping.”), Mr Calder understands perfectly. “He killed her dog and mutilated it. I know just how she felt.  I’ve got a dog myself.”

Thus Gilbert can lighten the violence. Sometimes the humour is all. In “The Cat Cracker” (17 pages), Mr Behrens uses all his wiles but fails in his task to persuade Alan Tabor, one of the ablest scientists in the world, not to leave Britain, which might then see him work for the country’s enemies. However, it transpires that the trim but well-appointed figure of Ruby, the 18-year-old barmaid at The Lamb public house, has greater attractions, and Tabor stays.

In these and seven other stories the author slips in subtle little details that probably go unnoticed by the reader until the denouement, whereupon they are recalled and realised. Similarly, in a clever use of the short story format, not every fact need be spelled out, and the reader again is trusted to fill in the blanks at the end. More of his books, please.

Michael Gilbert’s died at age 93 in 2006 after having been made a Commander of the British Empire in 1980. He was a founding member of the Crime Writers Association in London in 1953, and it awarded him a Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement in 1994. He was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1988.

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