Friday’s Forgotten Book: Game Without Rules by Michael Gilbert

Michael Francis Gilbert (1912 – 2006) was an English solicitor and well-known author of crime fiction. His work includes 30 novels and approximately 185 stories in 13 collections, as well as stage, radio, and television plays. He was made a Commander in the Order of the British Empire, won the Lifetime Achievement Anthony Award, and named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. He was a founding member of the Crime Writers Association, which later awarded him a Diamond Dagger.

Gilbert created a few series characters but was just as likely to produce a brand-new set for the work in progress. He wasn’t above having the various characters pop up in unexpected places; for instance, Patrick Petrella, a lead in one Gilbert series, appears in The Spoilers, a Behrens and Calder story. My favorite among his repeating characters are Mr. Behrens and Mr. Caldwell, who appear in 24 short stories that were mostly published first in the British magazine Argosy or the American Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and then collected in two anthologies, Game Without Rules (Harper & Row, 1967) and Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens (Hodder & Stoughton, 1982).

Samuel Behrens lives with his aunt in Lamperdown, Kent, with his aunt and keeps bees. His good friend Daniel Calder lives in a house outside Lamperdown with a Persian deerhound named Rasselas. Both of them appear to be inoffensive retired men with quiet lives. They occasionally visit Mr. Fortescue, ostensibly their bank manager, in London. Mr. Fortescue is actually the “controller and paymaster of a bunch of middle-aged cutthroats known as the ‘E’ branch.” A Prime Minister explained to his successor that “if there’s a job which is so disreputable that none of the departments will handle it, we give it to the ‘E’ Branch.” (Quotes from The Spoilers.)

In Game Without Rules are a dozen short stories describing the post-war and Cold War exploits of this pair of unassuming but effective spies. Reminders of the geographical division between East and West are prominent, when travel between countries was restricted, as in one story Behrens and Calder are tasked to determine the path foreign agents are using to spirit defectors through Europe and out of the British government’s control. In another they are assigned to help see that a young prince of an unnamed Middle Eastern country avoids assassins to get home safely after his father has died so that he can assume the throne. In a third Behrens tries to convince a promising young engineer that his life will not be improved by defecting to the Communists, no matter what they are telling him. In a lively tale of crossed wires, an informer uses the cover of office Christmas parties to abstract an important piece of decoding equipment and take it to the British Embassy where a senior official had promised him asylum, only to be turned away by someone else absorbed by the holidays.

These stories are a reminder of a time when espionage and counterespionage were largely carried out by fallible people. Technology had not taken over the world, and the only way to obtain information and to act on it was through individual ingenuity and effort. Now, computers take care of it and the process is far more impersonal. The human element is front and center in these stories, and that is one reason I like them so much. Of course they are brilliantly written, nothing else could be expected of Michael Gilbert. Highly recommended.

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