Close Quarters by Michael Gilbert (1947)

The Dean of Melchester Cathedral is of course concerned when he learns that he is not the only resident of the cathedral Close to receive an anonymous letter accusing the senior verger Daniel Appledown of misconduct. Luckily, he has a nephew who works in the C. I. D., and who can investigate on the quiet for him. But Detective Sergeant Bobby Pollock has barely started when Appledown is murdered. It can’t be kept quiet now, and Pollock calls on his boss, Inspector Hazelrigg, to take on the investigation.

Close Quarters is a traditional mystery of the closed circle variety. But instead of a small English village, we are treated to the interesting social structure of a cathedral close. And the closed circle that has their apparently sedate lives disturbed is a preponderance of presbyters. Gilbert makes sure to give us many of the representative characters. There’s a kindly, somewhat absent-minded Vicar—the Dean of Melchester; the nosy elderly widow—Mrs Judd, relic of the now deceased Canon Judd; the victim’s disreputable brother—Artful Appledown, and a village bobby with his large chaotic family—Sergeant Bumfit, to name just a few. And just so you’re aware, that really is to name just a few. There are quite a number of characters. Lucky for us the book comes complete with lists of characters and some very handy maps.

The story is full of subtle humor. And just as in any village, there is of course the usual gossip and back-biting, which Gilbert portrays with plenty of wit.

‘Good gracious me, you don’t have to be invited. It’s a regular Thursday afternoon ‘do’. The Chapter take it in turns, and everyone in the Close rolls up and eats sandwiches and lacerates each other’s characters, and all in the most Christian way imaginable. You’ll regret it all your life if you miss it.”

But while for the most part this is a seemingly light-hearted depiction of the Close, there is also an underlying grimness that you don’t pick up on right away. As it progresses, there emerges a harder edge to the story, as if Gilbert is determined that events, no matter how disturbing, suit the story, and not his audience. 

The solution to the mystery is difficult but not impossible. And it’s helped along by a fabulous sequence in which two of the canons are presented with a crossword puzzle, which once worked out, leads to a previously unknown motive. What’s really fun is that the reader can work the puzzle out for themselves—well they can if they’re any good at British cryptic crosswords, which I definitely am not.

I hadn’t read any Gilbert for a while, but this makes me want to read more…and sooner rather than later.

Prior Judgments – Tracy @ Bitter Tea and Mystery, Neeru @ A Hot Cup of Pleasure

Vintage Mystery Extravaganza—2015 Bingo—Read one book with a professional detective 

6 thoughts on “Close Quarters by Michael Gilbert (1947)

  1. Jonathan O

    This is one of my favourites of Gilbert’s work, together with “Smallbone Deceased” and “Blood and Judgement” – must re-read it soon.

    It’s an interesting point that nowadays the cryptic crossword has its own “fair play” rules. The one in this book predates these, so that its style is now rather old-fashioned. Still, the way it’s worked into the plot is ingenious.

  2. JFW

    Thanks for the review. Hmmm – cryptic crosswords puzzles! Not sure I’d regard such clues as fair-play too. 😓 Just wondering – am I right in seeming to think you’ve removed the numeral rating at the end of your reviews?

    1. You’re correct—I did remove the numerical rating. I found that I was writing to justify my rating instead of about what struck me about the book—good or bad.

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