Death in Captivity

Written by Michael Gilbert

Review written by LJ Hurst

Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung

Death in Captivity
British Library Publishing
RRP: £8.99
Released: February 10 2019

Death in Captivity, is a locked-room mystery set in an Italian Prisoner-of-War [PoW] camp However, the locked room is not the camp per se, but an escape tunnel from one of the prisoners’ huts. It appears that an unpopular prisoner is found suffocated under a roof fall.

Finding the roof collapse would be an inconvenience for any escape committee, but finding a prisoner’s body is even more demanding on the Senior British Officer (particularly as this tunnel seemed to be the one that was going to reach beyond the wire). What do you do with a body whose mode of death cannot be disguised? Colonel Baird has a plan – move the body to another tunnel that could be sacrificed and simulate a roof fall, then allow its discovery. How to move a body under the watchful eyes of the guards in the towers (with two men in every tower), is the problem.

The cunning of the British Prisoners seems to be quickly challenged. Before long a police investigation begins with fingerprints and evidence being collected. The dead man was a Greek officer but no one had taken to him. He slept alone as no one could tolerate him, and he suffered for it in consequence. This camp is for officers, nearly all British, with the only members of other ranks allowed in to serve as orderlies, and at this stage of the war, the interned officers are still public-school men. No one could vouch for the dead Greek officer as they had not shared schools. The same proves true of men whose parents could send them only to minor institutions (such as Shelton). Very few Shelton men were likely to turn up in a PoW camp, therefore unable to vouch for you. You were unlikely to be asked to join in a bridge club, or in amateur dramatics or any other activity to pass the tedium of captivity.

There are two men in every watch tower because the Italians had not managed to consolidate power as the Nazis had; so for every soldier, there is a member of the Fascist militia. An Italian soldier might have aimed to miss a prisoner attempting to escape but the fascists shoot to kill. Something similar is clearly the intention of black-shirted camp commandant Bennucci. That makes it very difficult for Captain Byfold, appointed by the British officers to make his own investigation, when it seems that Benucci’s intention is to incriminate him unjustly.

The legalism of treating the murder as a crime may seem irrelevant in war but it was practiced by both sides. Two Germans in British camps (Wolfgang Rosterg and Gerhard Rettig) were murdered by their fellows, for instance, and their killers consequently identified, tried and executed in normal criminal process. Michael Gilbert had been a prisoner in Italy himself and may have been inspired by crimes in his camp before he eventually came home and began his career as a solicitor.

Gilbert, must have experienced the same fear as Baird and Byfold when they hear that the Italian government may collapse with the Nazis ready to step in, and either transport them to the Fatherland or even, at its worst, murder them all rather than let them escape. It is under those circumstances that Byfold realises the identity of the murderer – and the complete reversals of thought he has had, make him realise how the killer had hidden himself, before ultimately practising a sort of wild justice, if not a justice in the wild.

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