And if you've been following my series of posts on spy fiction series, you might have noticed that the tendency has been to post an introductory essay to whichever spy series I'm blogging about at that juncture and follow that with one or more subsequent posts on various novels in that series. But not this time. This time, just for a change, I'm keeping it all in one single, solitary post – partly because, including Monday's post on Desmond Cory's Secret Ministry, by the end of the week I'll have posted three pretty lengthy reviews*, and I'm afraid I can only devote so much time and effort to this blog (and yes, astonishing as it may seem, a certain amount of time and effort does go into Existential Ennui); but also because this particular spy series doesn't consist of novels, but rather of short stories...
First published in hardback in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton in 1968 – the year following the 1967 US Harper and Row first edition – under an attractive dustjacket designed by the appealingly monikered Mick and Ging, Game Without Rules is a collection of short stories by crime and suspense writer (and lawyer) Michael Gilbert, starring two late-middle-aged British Intelligence operatives named Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens. The Hodder edition seen here is quite hard to come by these days – there are only a few on AbeBooks at the moment, and a presentable example will set you back at least £50–£100 – but in truth the book isn't common in any edition; it fell out of print years ago and at time of writing AbeBooks has just twenty copies in total.
Most of the stories in this collection originally appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in the early- to mid-1960s – which is probably why, despite Gilbert being British, the American edition of the collection preceded the British one – and they are, quite simply, some of the best espionage tales I've ever read. Resting somewhere on the spy slide rule between John le Carré's Smiley stories and Anthony Price's David Audley novels – I wouldn't be at all surprised if Mr. Gilbert were an influence on Mr. Price in particular – the Calder and Behrens tales share with le Carré's work a healthy distrust of the establishment and with Price's an unshakable belief in the seriousness of the Soviet threat. But in common with both of those authors' novels they're also fine mysteries, with plausible scenarios, deft characterisation, believable dialogue, lashings of wry observation and wonderful pay-offs.
Both in their fifties, Samuel Behrens and Daniel Joseph Calder work for Mr. Fortescue, ostensibly the manager of the Westminster branch of the London and Home Counties Bank – where he is based – but in fact "the controller and paymaster of a bunch of middle-aged cutthroats known as the 'E' (or External) Branch of the Joint Services Standing Intelligence Committee" ("The Spoilers"). Behrens and Calder live not far from each other in the Kentish North Downs, in a fictional village named Lamperdown; Behrens lives with his aunt in the The Old Rectory, and Calder lives with his loyal Persian deerhound, Rasselas, in a cottage on Hyde Hill overlooking the village. The two men do not reside close by each other by chance; we learn that they do so in order to watch over one another, their line of work frequently being a dangerous one.
Gilbert's Calder and Behrens stories are clipped and economical – of necessity, being short – but still manage to pack a hell of a lot in; at one point in "The Spoilers" nothing less than the survival of democracy in Britain seems to be at stake, while the European chase in "Cross-Over" could fuel an entire Bond novel. Indeed, reading one of these short tales is akin to reading a full novel, so complete is the experience.
Mr Calder & Mr Behrens, followed the first one in 1982, again published by Hodder & Stoughton in the UK. As with Game Without Rules, though, Mr Calder & Mr Behrens has slipped out of print, and there are currently fewer than twenty copies of any edition on AbeBooks (although they are more affordable than copies of the former). And of those (fewer than) twenty, only one is the Hodder first: an ex-library copy, possibly missing its jacket. My Hodder first came from the always-dependable Richard Sylvanus Williams of Winterton in North Lincs, but I've yet to read it. My learned friend Olman has, however, and you can find his review here, along with one or two other Michael Gilbert reviews (Olman's something of a Gilbert aficionado). There's also a good overview of all of Gilbert's work here, and a fine Guardian obituary by the late critic and crime novelist H. R. F. Keating here.
I'll be returning to Messrs Calder, Behrens and indeed Gilbert before too long – I have a couple of other Michael Gilbert books besides Mr Calder & Mr Behrens to blog about, one of which is a collection of short stories featuring a policeman who makes a brief guest appearance in Game Without Rules. Next, though: a spy series which began life as a crime series...
*UPDATE 2/2/12: At least, that was the plan. It now looks unlikely that I'll have time to finish that third review before the week's out, so it'll have to wait a while. Hey: that's blogging!