Monday, February 13, 2006

8. Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens by Michael Gilbert

Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens pictureThis is at least the third time I've read this book. The first was at some point in my teenage years, working my way through my parents collection of Michael Gilbert paperbacks. When I moved to New York, I would pick up any of his paperbacks I found, building up my own collection and reading them. This was my mid-20s. Sadly, I am motivated to re-read at least one of Gilbert's books now in honor of his passing. I will re-read them all again at some point, but they are still a bit fresh in my memory.

Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens is a collection of short stories from Ellery Queen magazine recounting the exploits of two British counterinsurgency agents. There is another collection called Game Without Rules. Most of the stories take place in Britain in the late '60s and early '70s, though since both characters came up in the Second World War, there are many references to that period. Mr. Behrens looks like a nondescript college professor, is an expert linguist and strategist. Mr. Calder is a bit thicker, perhaps looking like a retired sergeant. He likes to mix it up, often chopping people "scientifically" in the throat or kidney. He is accompanied by a Persian Deerhound called Rasselas that he treats like a human.

Both represent the best qualities of an ascendant Britain: well-educated, sensible, calm, stoic and honorable. A car breaking down is an opportunity for a good walk. They embody the great British notion (so lost on the Americans) of treating small things with great concern and treating large problems with aplomb (an important trait of the samurai, according to Hakagura). Gilbert spends a lot more time discussing the quality of the claret than the shooting of a spy through the heart. In one story, a wealthy colonel threatens to harm his MP and put a stop to a new road being built across his estate. Their boss tells them "I think we must take a hand. The loss of an occassional member of parliament may not be a matter of concern, but we don't want some innocent bulldozer driver destroyed."

Ultimately, Gilbert is a moderate conservative, in the most classical sense. He believes in the importance of the state. He is also a moralist. There is always right and wrong in his books and when right meets wrong, it is right's duty to stop wrong in the most expedient and least disruptive way possible. Punches are not pulled in Gilbert's books, especially in the Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens stories. Once discovered, spies are eliminated, generally shot, quickly and efficiently. However, his is ultimately a morality that wants peace and considers any aggression towards the innocent as just as much an outrage as treason. It is a morality I wish we had more of today, a sensible sense of duty and commitment to society, rather than the two poles of frightened aggression and weak self-indulgence we have in North America today.

Read some Michael Gilbert as soon as possible.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Timely review and well worth reading. I have not read any Gilbert in a long time but I plan on scouting the local used booksellers for some of his works.

I will definitely pick up this one.