Thursday, July 17, 2008

25. Fear to Tread by Michael Gilbert

Fear to Tread pictureThis all started because I went to the library. I have an on-deck shelf that is threatening to fall of the edge of the chest of drawers it is on. There are a lot of good books there I want to read. I only went to the library to return Daughter Fair before my trip out west. But I decided to take a little browse down the english mystery and sci-fi shelves. And just couldn't help take out a few books, which will do nothing to bring down the width of my on-deck shelf.

One of those books was Fear to Tread by Michael Gilbert. I have read this book (and all of Gilbert's books) several times. But it hasn't been since college and I just thought I'd take a look, see how his prose held up. Reading the first couple paragraphs in the library was enough to suck me right back in. His solid prose, his subtle, pithy characterization, his profound love for the english character and lower-middle class London, his sensible conservatism, it was all there in the first few pages where he describes the protagonist, a principal of a large public (in the North American sense, as in state) school in a working class district of London.

Fear to Tread takes place in the early '50s, as Britain is recovering from the war. The principal, Mr. Wetherall, a stubborn and benevolent figure, stumbles, through a series of minor events, on a complex syndicate that is overseeing the stealing and redistribution of goods. Foodstuffs are still scarce and there is a thriving black market for coffee, meat, alchohol, cigarettes and other common but quality goods.

Quite early on, Wetherall, comes right up against real danger. I realize now, one of Gilbert's skills is the way he structures his book. A lot of subtle things happen, so that you don't really know what is going on, but you are intrigued. However, at the same time, he somehow lays out the situation quite cleary in the first few chapters. So from my description, it sounds quite straightforward, idealistic principal goes up against smuggling mob, but when you are reading it, there is so much other stuff going on that you don't really realize how straightforward the overall story is. That "other stuff" involves the many side characters, interesting locations and minor conflicts that might not have anything to do with the main plot. They are all so steeped in the richness of the milieu and the britishness of Gilbert's world, that they are just pleasing to read. Furthermore, he is also a master at the subtle, but totally satisfying resolution moment, where some nasty gossip or manipulative council member suddenly gets theirs.

I really can't do justice to Michael Gilbert's skill. He doesn't get much recognition in North America and I wouldn't be surprised if you don't hear about him much in Britain these days. But he is truly one of the greats. Check out any of his books. You won't be sorry.

1 comment:

Buzby said...

This sounds cool, I will have to add it to my on deck shelf which is equally burgeoning.