Friday 30 August 2013

Be Shot for Sixpence by Michael Gilbert: First Edition (Hodder, 1956); Book Review

NB: Linked in this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

I've written about British author Michael Gilbert just once before in any depth, when I reviewed the first collection of his Calder and Behrens spy stories, Game Without Rules (Hodder, 1968), early in 2012. That book wound up nabbing the number two spot in my year-end top ten, but even before then I'd made a vow to revisit Gilbert, especially his espionage tales (he penned all manner of thrillers and mysteries and suspense works and courtroom dramas – he himself was a lawyer – besides spy stories), the earliest of which, I believe, is this:

Be Shot for Sixpence, Gilbert's ninth novel, published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton in 1956. I won this first edition on eBay; the book is in pretty good nick, but crucially so is the dust jacket (aside from a fold line half an inch from the lower edge); certainly it compares favourably with other copies on AbeBooks, all of whose wrappers appear to be in various states of disrepair. The jacket design is uncredited, sadly, but it's good enough, I feel, to claim a place in my Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery, where it now resides down the bottom under "Designer Unknown". (I've also added Mick and Ging's wrapper for Game Without Rules, taking the number of jackets on the page up to 107.)

I'm not sure the novel itself will be appearing in my 2013 top ten, however; for though an espionage tale it may well be, it's of a different stripe to the Calder and Behrens stories. Buchanesque I suppose you'd call it, if you'd read any John Buchan, which I haven't, although a contemporaneous Spectator reviewer evidently had and was accordingly slightly unkind about the novel. Unfairly so, I think, because it's a pacy first-person piece of pan-European intrigue, not dissimilar to Geoffrey Household or Desmond Cory (both of whom I guess would also be classified as Buchanesque; I really must get round to Buchan one day).

Our narrator is Philip – we never learn his seemingly unpronouncable surname; apparently it sounds a bit like "Cowhorn" – a gentleman in the mould of the marginally more nameless (originally, anyway) hero of Household's Rogue Male, or maybe Roger Taine from A Rough Shoot. When Philip's friend, Colin Studd-Thompson, goes missing, Philip sets out to find him, first tangling with the police and the intelligence services in England before following Studd-Thompson's trail abroad to Germany and then Austria, winding up at a castle on the Hungarian/Yugoslav border. Here he encounters a curious collection of misfits led by Ferenc Lady, a Hungarian whose hazy agenda regarding his homeland only comes into focus in the closing stages of the novel.

Up until the midway point Be Shot for Sixpence is a breezy, even jaunty affair; despite the odd chase sequence there's little real sense of peril for Philip, and he's an amusingly caustic companion. (The novel's opening lines – "I dislike good-byes. Why should a man invoke the Deity because he is moving his unimportant self from one place to another?" – give a good indication of his abrasive nature.) But then an expedition over the mountains into Yugoslavia ("Jugoslavia" here) in search of information ends with a gruesome discovery, and before too long Philip finds himself double-crossed and resorting to murder.

That the remainder of the book doesn't quite live up to the promise of this clammy middle section is, I suspect, why I wasn't as bowled over by it as I was by Game Without Rules, but there's still a tense moment or two in the latter stages, especially when Philip falls into enemy hands – although even here Gilbert doesn't quite deliver, flinching in the face of a potential torture scene that, say, Ian Fleming would have attacked with gusto. But no matter: Be Shot for Sixpence still stands as an enjoyable spy thriller, and I'm as determined as ever to try some more Gilbert. (Good thing really: I've somehow managed to acquire getting on for ten first editions of the author's works over the past year or two.)


  1. Interesting. I didn't know Gilbert wrote spy stories.

  2. Ooh, you should try Game Without Rules, Kelly. Some of the best spy stories I've ever read.

  3. Finally! Gilbert gets better and better. He does great mysteries and his crime thrillers are also excellent. He has the knack of delivering true toughness in a character in the most subtle way. He's one of my favourites, so I look forward to your take on his later books.

    You have to admit, "Be Shot for Sixpence" is a great title.

  4. I tend to buy Gilbert novels whenever I see them, as they're not too common on this side of the pond. I've probably picked up around 15 now, mostly cheap paperbacks, but I'd never heard of Be Shot for Sixpence before this post. It certainly sounds good though!

    I'm surprised no one has reissued Game Without Rules in recent years. The most recent (and typo-ridden) mass market paperback used to go for upwards of $20 used on AbeBooks, and the cheapest copy of any edition currently available on the site is a $48 hardback!

    Great stories though, if you can find them. I'm told the companion volume, Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens, is also very good, and it has the advantage of being much, much easier to find.

    Gilbert wrote a few other story collections focused on one character or set of characters. Petrella at Q is a series of shorts about a London detective, while Anything for a Quiet Life is about a retired barrister (I think?). Perhaps those would be worthwhile for you to seek out as well?

    (Petrella, by the way, has a brief cameo in Game Without Rules.)