Be Shot for Sixpence (Michael Gilbert)

  • By Michael Gilbert
  • First published: UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1956; US: Harper, 1956

A spy thriller that starts better than it finishes.

My notes: “Sometimes one knows, even before a story has got underway, that one will enjoy a book!  Chapter 1 gives us:

  • a clever intrusion of the author (narrator’s cousin, Michael, who writes thrillers);
  • businessmen “like burst brown paper bags”, “foaled by Money out of Timidity”, discussing strikes
  • the narrator breaking up with his mistress, after she visited his father: “He knew all about us.”  “He knows all about myxomatosis. But he doesn’t want diseased rabbit served up for breakfast.”
  • a vivid description of an aquarium
  • a small club committee room with 200 volumes of Punch, a buffalo’s head with one eye, and no windows of any sort.  “Even bailiffs have been removed from it screaming in less than 30 minutes.”

It doesn’t quite stay on that level of wit.  The book breezes by, and Gilbert is never less than readable, but it turns into a somewhat routine tale of kidnap to, and escape from Communist Hungary, with lots of cross-country travel.


A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989):

A tale of international intrigue on the model of SymonsBroken Penny, but less well-plotted emotionally.  The hero is made disagreeable and even despicable; the beautiful blonde with whom the hero sleeps turns out as convention requires; and the other characters are so distorted in their “strong” features as to become flatly uninteresting. As for action, the fundamental idea is that not only is all fair in war and espionage, but this cruelty must obtain among fellow agents, to keep one “fit”.  The author also believes that a diesel-electric locomotive needs a “conductor rail”.