If ever there was an author whose works cried out to be instantly uploaded to Kindle, Michael Gilbert is him. Fear to Tread is one of four or five (or six, or seven) of my favorites of his novels.
Wilfred Wetherall, headmaster of the South Borough Secondary School for boys in post-World War II London, is beset by small problems both professional and personal. His favorite restaurant is going out of business. The father of a promising student appears determined to avert every effort of Mr. Wetherall’s to find his son a job that will further his artistic ability. A former student is now a member of the Metropolitan Police Force, lost his wife to thugs he was investigating undercover, and seems on an irreversible downhill slide.
None of these things seem connected, at first, but they are, and together lead Mr. Wetherall, that most unlikely of detectives, to a ring of black marketeers who have done and will do anything including slander, intimidation, blackmail and bloody murder to protect their racket.
I don’t think I’m giving anything away by telling you that in the end Mr. Wetherall weathers all (sorry, couldn’t help myself), because it is the journey itself that Gilbert makes so enjoyable. He’s a first-rate plotter (I’d compare his craft to Don Winslow’s), and a past master of characterization. Of Mr. Wetherall, Gilbert writes:
A historian looking back on Mr. Wetherall’s life from the vantage point of complete knowledge would easily see that the key to almost everything of importance in it was a quiet, inoffensive, persistent obstinacy.
Mr. Wetherall in a nutshell, and on every page. Of a potential school committee member:
Mr. Fawcus faised himself a couple of times onto his toes–a purely symbolic gesture, demonstrating the strength of his ideas…
This is how the thing is done. When Alistair Todd, journalist, tries to convince Mr. Wetherall to be careful how he goes:
“…if by ‘sit back’ you mean that I’m to stay out of this thing from now on, I’m afraid you’ve got it wrong. I certainly couldn’t drop it now. To start with I don’t approve of physical violence—”
“You don’t—” Todd looked at his friend, and suppressed a desire to smile. Mr. Wetherall was peering earnestly over his broken glasses, apparently unconscious of the fact that one side of his face was red and blue from forehead to chin; that his lip was split, that both hands were heavily bandaged, and that his suit was an unspeakable travesty of its once respectable self. “You don’t he said, “approve of violence?”
“I’ve always been against bullying, too. It’s a thing I’ve been very strict about in any school I’ve taught in.”
“Quite so,” said Todd.
No thundering from the pulpit here, and doesn’t need any. When Mr. Wetherall is throwing down with the school committee, in particular the execrable Miss Toup
“You spoke about writing in your spare time,” said Miss Toup venemously. “I wasn’t aware that headmasters had much spare time. Unless they make it at the expense of the school.”
Now Mr. Wetherall had meant to be good.
And he is, very good indeed. There are many lovely characters herein, all three Donovans, the ultimately spectacularly unconscionable and ungrateful student Crowdy, the amiable, excellent Todd, the volcanic Fleet Street baron Robarts, I could go on but I won’t.
One final note: Gilbert is the biggest tease I ever read. The last paragraph will send you lunging for Google just to see if maybe… Fear to Tread reminds me of Gilbert’s Flash Point, where an annoying lawyer sues a public man and you never know which one is in the right, because by the time you get to the end of the book you realize that’s not what Gilbert’s writing about at all.
I see there are used copies of Fear to Tread on Amazon for anywhere from $14 to $256 each. Like I said. Kindle calling…