My first encounter with Michael Gilbert was the excellent WW2 impossible crime novel, The Danger Within. Seeking out more of his work, I was naturally drawn to Death Has Deep Roots by the gorgeous cover of the Dell edition that I happened to stumble on. It seemed to be a fortunate find – Death Has Deep Roots is the book that preceded The Danger Within, and is itself preceded by another of Gilbert’s most lauded novels – Smallbone Deceased. Perhaps I had found myself in a solid run of Gilbert’s mystery catalog.
Let’s be clear – Death Has Deep Roots is not an impossible crime novel. Nor is it the type of GAD mystery that you’d usually find me covering on this site. I’d say that a mystery lurks beneath the surface, but isn’t quite true. Instead, the mystery is the surface, and a very different tale lurks beneath.
The story takes place over the course of the trial of Victoria Lamartine – a French refugee living in London after the recent war. Lamartine is accused of murdering Major Thoseby, a British officer that she had known in France while operating in the French Resistance. From the very get go we’re told that this is an open and shut case. The case against Lamartine is so solid that even her original lawyers tried to convince her to plead guilty. Gilbert sets up the air tight case through the lips of the prosecutor.
“Some of you may perhaps be reminded of a certain type of detective novel. I have no doubt that a number of you read this very popular form of literature…and will be well acquainted with what used to be known as a ‘sealed box’ mystery. I mean that type of mystery where a body is found in a locked room with no windows, or in a strong room or in some other inaccessible place, and the question which has to be answered is not only who was the murderer, but how did the murderer get at his victim and how did he get away again.”
This tantalizing quote is accompanied by the type of floorpan illustration that you hope to get from an impossible crime novel. The thing is, this isn’t that type of story.
Major Thoseby was found stabbed in his room in a hotel that Lamartine was working at. His room wasn’t locked. There were two other guests staying down the hall from where he was killed – in fact one of them was in the room directly next to his. Either guest could have simply walked into Thoseby’s room and stabbed him and nobody would have noticed.
How does the notion of a locked room mystery come into play then? Well it doesn’t at all. The closest thing is that Major Thoseby was alone in his room for a period of time during which all entrances to his hallway were under observation by three witnesses. However, as you learn much later in the story, no-one is even suggesting that Thoseby was killed during this time period. By the time the murder occurred, two guest had retired to their rooms down the same hall.
Ok, so not even vaguely impossible – that’s fine. How’s the rest of the mystery? Well, it kind of takes a while to figure that out. You see, the trial unfolds over the course of the book, and it’s only after maybe 100 pages that a reader could even describe the general circumstances of the crime. It’s not that Gilbert drags things out (although he obviously delays revealing the evidence), it’s that Death Has Deep Roots has a number of plot veins other than the trial of Victoria Lamartine.
A major portion of the story is devoted to investigations being carried out by members of the law firm representing the accused. It’s somewhat of a race against time to uncover evidence as the trial teeters towards conclusion. As such, the the details of exactly how the crime was supposedly committed stretch over the course of the majority of the story, intermixed with subplots that verge of thriller.
Michael Gilbert seems to be playing with the expectations that an audience has from a murder mystery. Every ounce of the set up screams classic puzzle plot, but the story continues to swerve elsewhere. Gilbert even acknowledges this during several meta-moments.
“I started out reading a murder story. It seems to have turned into a gold-smuggling melodrama.”
So, why was Victoria Lamartine accused of the crime in the first place? I honestly have no clue. It takes maybe 150 pages to come out, but the prosecution’s case basically boils down to “three people could have committed the crime, but only one knew the victim. Thus, they must be the killer. Oh, and we never investigated the background of anyone else at the hotel.”
How the prosecution even got the case to court is beyond me. By the time the full evidence is finally put in front of the court it seemed like the defense could have just given an awkward shrug towards the jury and awaited a verdict of innocent. It’s strange how the story plays out in that sense. An air tight crime has been dangled in front of you, but the details of it are always out of reach. And finally when those details come to light, you wonder why it was ever presented as a mystery at all. In a way, the only real mystery of Death Has Deep Roots is figuring out what the actual mystery is.
But, as I mentioned early on, this isn’t really a mystery – it is somewhat of a thriller masquerading as one. The meat of the story takes place in France and in the underbelly of the London underworld, and that’s really where the attraction lay for me. I wouldn’t say that I’m into thrillers, but Gilbert weaves an intriguing tale that borders on adventure.
It’s this look into the French Resistance and the post war impact on the French that was probably of most interest to me in hindsight. Similar to how Michael Gilbert captured life in an Italian POW camp in The Danger Within, Death Has Deep Roots was intriguing for focusing on the aftermath of the war in France. The story reads more like an espionage tinged caper, with several fights and some truly gripping moments when characters get themselves in bad situations.
Now, I’ve kind of ragged on how weak the mystery in Death Has Deep Roots was, but understand that the weakness doesn’t become apparent until late in the book. Up until then you have three fairly thrilling threads going and this was an engrossing read. As such, I actually overall enjoyed the book, even though it wasn’t at all what I expected to read. I’m not going to recommend that you seek out Death Has Deep Roots if you’re looking for a good mystery, but you could do a lot worse than picking it up if you stumble upon it for a bargain at a shop. It’s a good read, but probably not what you think you want to read. That’s fine though – it’s surprises like this that make reading interesting.