The Danger Within first flickered onto my radar a little over a year ago while I was reviewing Tomcat’s list My Favorite Locked Room Mysteries over at Beneath the Stains of Time.
“This is one of my all-time favorite mystery novels from the post-WWII era and of the best blends of the formal detective story, thriller elements and a semi-autobiographic at the same time. The setting is a POW camp in Italy and has a nifty impossible situation: a man has been found dead in a secret escape tunnel and the entrance was blocked with a furnace, which needed the combined strength of half a dozen men to budge as much as an inch.”
A locked room mystery set in a WWII POW camp? Sign me up please.
While I spent my childhood consuming a hefty amount of mystery and science fiction, I more than dabbled in tales of the trenches. The idea of an impossible crime taking place on a battlefield or in a prison camp is intriguing beyond simply stepping outside of the expected setting of a country house or the odd castle. You expect death in war time, and I’ve heard of more than one GAD novel in which a murderer has attempted to disguise their deed among the ruins of bombed out England. The actual theatre of war is different though. There, death simply is. The notion that a friend could become foe in the face of a clearly defined common adversary is no unique concept – just see Platoon. Still, mix in an impossible-style murder plot and I’m all game.
The Danger Within (originally titled Death in Captivity), unfolds in an Italian POW camp. Several hundred men from a number of nations are housed in barracks surrounded by a large yard. The camp has a reputation for being one of the better places one could end up in captivity – the occupants have fairly free reign during the day, although always under the watchful eyes of the Italian guards. The men occupy their days with distractions such as rugby matches, theatre,…and escape.
A history of failed escape attempts have left the men with one strong bet – a tunnel of considerable length that has survived detection for months. The secret to its success is the undetectability of its entrance. This is no mere hole under a few loose boards. Instead, an entire concrete slab in the kitchen of one of the huts can be hoisted by four men with pulleys. The entrance to the tunnel is effectively hidden because it’s too large to be detected.
The tremendous effort necessary to gain access to the tunnel forms the foundation for a baffling impossibility – one morning, the body of one of the captives is found in the tunnel. Four men would have had to cooperate to open the tunnel, and this would have had to be accomplished in spite of the entrance being situated right next to an entire barrack’s worth of bunks.
“It is crazy. That’s what ought to make it easy to solve. If it was ordinary, there might be half a dozen solutions, and you could never be sure that you’d get hold of the right one. With a crazy problem like this, if you can find any solution at all, it must be the right one.”
Gilbert amps up the tension immediately upon discovery of the corpse. Roll call is scheduled in a few hours, and every man in camp must be accounted for. What to do with the body? The men embark on an escapade to smuggle the victim to another housing unit, where they attempt to stash the body in an abandoned tunnel. They stage the scene to make it look as if the deceased perished in a cave-in and then turn the evidence over to the guards.
The Italians would typically brush off such an incident by doling out minor punishments. In this case, they seem dead set to investigate the circumstances of the death and prove that there was a murder – despite no outright evidence that there was anything suspicious about the staged crime scene. Why are the guards acting so differently this time?
The prospect of one of their own being tried for the murder puts the prisoners in an odd spot. They must solve the crime quickly – both to prove the innocence of an unfortunate scapegoat, but also to learn how the body got into their supposedly secret tunnel in the first place.
“He realized he was in a position which, as a reader of detective novels, he had often imagined himself occupying without ever really expecting to do so. He had been invited to investigate a murder.”
The Danger Within packs a bit more tension than the traditional Golden Age mystery To be fair, it is from a few years later. Still, it feels very much of the time, in spite of a very unconventional setting.
As much as this is a mystery, it is a tale of war time captivity. It feels lazy to draw a parallel to The Great Escape – The Danger Within preceded the renowned film by over a decade, although it was published two years after the book that led to the adaptation. Yet, how can I not? We have men living under the pressure of captivity, the camaraderie that they share, and the schemes they must devise on a pathway to escape. How to dig unnoticed? How to dispose of the dirt? How to obtain materials to shore up the tunnel to keep it from collapsing? How to keep an eye out for an unexpected guard? In the event of one, how to quietly sound the alarm?
That an impossible crime is dropped in the midst is pure icing on the cake. In fact, while the promise of solving the puzzle provided an adequate goalpost for a mystery novel of the sort, I was just as much intrigued to see whether and how the men would make it out of the camp.
In the end, it was probably the escape angle that proved most satisfying. I wouldn’t quite call the solution to the impossibility disappointing, but it didn’t deliver anything that I hadn’t already considered. The “who” was at once surprising, while at the same time a bit predictable. It didn’t matter though. The Danger Within ends so strongly that I closed the book mourning that I didn’t have at least another fifty pages left. Michael Gilbert had built such a cast of characters and sense of camaraderie that I had to know what more would happen next.
The Danger Within provides a satisfying blend of the mystery of an impossible crime with the tension and escapades of an escape thriller. The book came fairly early in Michael Gilbert’s career (1952), and followed immediately after two of his other more renowned novels – Small Bone Deceased (1950) and Death Has Deep Roots (1951). I’ll most likely be reading one of those two next, although I picked up another seven Gilbert works immediately upon completing The Danger Within.
The author published about 30 novels over the course of his career, although I get the sense the quite a few of the later titles were more of the espionage/action/thriller/crime variety. Although I primarily focus on GAD mysteries, I’d be willing to experiment with some of Gilbert’s other genres given the strength of the POW camp storyline of The Danger Within. Does anyone have any thoughts on his wider works?