Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert (1952)

Cyriakos Coutoules is an unpopular man and his death is not a complete surprise. Neither a financial tycoon nor an unscrupulous blackmailer, he is not your typical GAD victim, but then  set in an Italian prisoner of war of camp, this is not your typical GAD novel.

The body of Coutoules, a suspected informer, is discovered by the first digging shift of the day inside the Hut C escape tunnel. But how could he have got there when it takes four men to open the shaft?

Although Coutoules is no great loss, the prisoners want to know who is responsible to prevent their captors taking action against the wrong man and so Captain Henry “Cuckoo” Goyles is tasked with investigating what has happened and realises that:

“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…His suspects, although numerous, were closely gathered together, within the walls of one small piece of the earth’s surface, measuring not more than two hundred yards in any direction.”

He undertakes his inquiries against a backdrop of continuing escape activity and a shifting military situation as the fall of Italy becomes imminent.

They say write what you know and that’s definitely what Michael Gilbert does here. His introduction to “The Detective Stories of Cyril Hare” explains that when he was confined to “the cooler” for thirty days he and his cellmate read through “Tragedy at Law” rationing themselves to a few chapters day (think about that next time you wolf down a book in one sitting) and he draws on his own experiences of captivity to create an authentic setting populated with a range of characters, from those prisoners content to “sit out the war as comfortably as possibly” spending their time playing sport or putting on plays, to those who are determined to escape. These different mindsets create tension when the latter frequently requisition items belonging to the former, starting with the bedboards needed to shore up the tunnel before moving onto other bespoke items.

 

“So that’s what that pile of planks was…”

This book is an engaging detective story and a tribute to those men for whom the war was most definitely not over.

The book was filmed in 1959 as “Danger Within” with a cast including Richard “Guy Gibson” Todd, Bernard “M” Lee, Richard “Big X” Attenborough, and an uncredited Michael “Harry Palmer” Caine and based on the story and that cast list I need to get a copy.

If you enjoy either the book or the film then I can also recommend Billy Wilder’s 1953 film “Stalag 17” for which William Holden won the Best Actor Oscar.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

This book won the 1955 Grand Prix de Littérature Policière International Award so fulfils “Why – It won an award of any sort”.

 

 

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