Wednesday 1 February 2012

Game Without Rules (Hodder & Stoughton, 1968) by Michael Gilbert: Book Review, plus Mr Calder and Mr Behrens (Hodder, 1982)

Well look at that: Existential Ennui is five years old today. Now, before we get all carried away n'shit (shyeah, right), I should point out that 1 February is really only technically Existential Ennui's birthday. When I originally set this blog up in 2007, it was as a back-up to another, long-defunct blog; I didn't really begin posting properly on Existential Ennui until July 2009, and Existential Ennui didn't really become what it is today – i.e. a pompous, pretentious, prolix books blog – until the following year. So I'll forgo any celebrations, if you don't mind – not that anyone would be celebrating the anniversary of this utter waste of everybody's time anyway – and carry on regardless, with a spot more spy fiction.

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.

As characters, Calder and Behrens (and Fortescue) can be ruthless, but they're also pragmatic; while in "The Road to Damascus" an enemy agent is summarily executed by Mr. Calder upon a signal from Mr. Behrens, in "On Slay Down" a target is ultimately made an offer rather than, well, offed. But Calder and Behrens are certainly devious – as are the plots in which they find themselves, full of twists and hidden agendas; "Prometheus Unbound", for example, which sees Mr. Calder losing his marbles and boasts a tense pursuit and stand-off in London's Latin Quarter, genuinely keeps you guessing right up till the very end. And in Mr. Calder's dog, Rasselas, the two men possess a secret weapon who helps resolve more than a few plot points – although Rasselas also provides perhaps the most affecting moment in the entire book.

Game Without Rules isn't the only collection of Calder and Behrens stories; a second collection, 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!


  1. You're too hard on yourself. Why do you think EE is pompous and pretentious? I've learnt much from your blog over the last year or so. Well done that Man!

  2. happy sort-of blog-o-versary! ;) lol. I posted a blurb about you today on my blog:

  3. Many happy page loads of the day and then some. And your blog isn't even showing any frown lines for such an oldster. Very nice.

    I agree with Luke: not at all pompous or pretentious. When I'm not adding names to my list of "Check Out These Writers" I'm usually envying your impressive book collection and the shops in your country. Keep up the enlightening posts!

  4. Luke, Jessica, John: thank you all for the congrats – even though it's only technically EE's birthday (maybe I should instigate an "official" birthday too, like the Queen).

    Re the "pompous, pretentious" thing, that was written in jest... mostly. Truth is, while half the time I enjoy enthusing about the books I love, the other half I annoy the living daylights out of myself. My "style" frequently infuriates me, my "research" is often perfunctory, and there are days when I just feel like deleting the whole bloody blog. Mind you, I guess that's probably true for most bloggers. Or maybe it isn't. Who the hell knows.

  5. Yup, I feel the same way about The Greasy Spoon. I'm often thinking "is there anyone out there actually reading the blasted thing?"

    You're getting all these "hits", but these could easily be internet surfers in the Mid West- on your page for a third of a second- and then on to the next one; or even worse some form of automatic Big Brother internet computer corporation techy skimmer thing- I've often wondered why I get so many hits from Seattle...

  6. Happy anniversary! Obviously, there are one or two of us wankers out there who find some value in your prattling on and on about whatnot and wheresoforth.

    (I've always been lousy at imitating accents and dialects.)

  7. Oi, Reynolds: you callin' me a fackin' wanker? Oh, no, wait, you're calling yourself a wanker. That's fine, then! By the way, odd coincidence that both our anniversaries are on the same day...

    Luke, I'm sure there are plenty of folk who read The Greasy Spoon (me among them), and I know EE has a decent audience now, certainly bigger than most other books blogs. But to be honest, I was perfectly fine when it was just me, Olman and Book Glutton reading EE. More than anything else, EE is a way for me to keep my hand in with the writing; I wrote for a living in the 1990s (music journalism mostly), but as I moved into more editorial roles I had fewer opportunities to write. Making myself write for EE helps redress that balance, but the downside of that is I hate a lot of the stuff I write!

  8. Nick Jones: You say that you hate a lot of the stuff you write.

    You may be the only one.

    "Shakespeare Head Conpress [sic!] Printing (whatever the hell that is)"

    Shakespeare Head was the name of a publishing firm founded in 1904.

    The Shakespeare Head Press owned Compress [with an m, not an n] Printing Ltd.

    BTW, I'm the anonymous poster who dug up the Klim Forster info for you.

  9. Well thank you for your kind words, Anonymous, and for your Forster info. The misspelling of Compress was the AbeBooks seller's, not mine, but again, the additional info is welcome.

  10. Happy Blog Birthday! *Throwing streamers made from cut-up copies of Danielle Steel novels*

  11. Ha, thanks Kelly. Those better not've been first editions of Danielle Steel novels, though...

  12. How did I miss you reading a Michael Gilbert!? I'm glad you enjoyed it (otherwise I would have had to raise my left hand slightly).

    And a belated congratulations!

  13. I bought Game Without Rules (a very nice American first edition for a very low price) after it came in at number two on your year end list but didn't get around to starting it until last weekend (prompted by seeing your lovely cover of After the Fine Weather). I can't believe I waited so long to try it - it is fantastic. And now I am completely obsessed with finding copies of all his books.

    And another item - now that I have a dog, I seem to love all things dog-related (or else this is a symptom of me starting to lose my mind). After reading GWR, I am now trying to figure out a way to get a Persian deerhound of my own, just like Rasselas.

    More Michael Gilbert, please!

  14. I still haven't read the second Calder and Behrens collection, so I may shuffle that up the to-read pile ahead of After the Fine Weather. And well done on scoring a US first of Game Without Rules. Nice jacket on that, plus it predates the UK first.