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Be Shot For Six Pence

BOOK: Be Shot For Six Pence
Copyright & Information

Be Shot For Sixpence


First published in 1956

© Estate of Michael Gilbert; House of Stratus 1956-2012


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.


The right of Michael Gilbert to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted.


This edition published in 2012 by House of Stratus, an imprint of

Stratus Books Ltd., Lisandra House, Fore Street, Looe,

Cornwall, PL13 1AD, UK.


Typeset by House of Stratus.


A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library and the Library of Congress.




This is a fictional work and all characters are drawn from the author’s imagination.

Any resemblance or similarities to persons either living or dead are entirely coincidental.

About the Author



Born in Lincolnshire, England, Michael Francis Gilbert graduated in law from the University of London in 1937, shortly after which he first spent some time teaching at a prep-school which was followed by six years serving with the Royal Horse Artillery. During World War II he was captured following service in North Africa and Italy, and his prisoner-of-war experiences later leading to the writing of the acclaimed novel
‘Death in Captivity’
in 1952.

After the war, Gilbert worked as a solicitor in London, but his writing continued throughout his legal career and in addition to novels he wrote stage plays and scripts for radio and television. He is, however, best remembered for his novels, which have been described as witty and meticulously-plotted espionage and police procedural thrillers, but which exemplify realism.

HRF Keating stated that
‘Smallbone Deceased’
was amongst the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published.
“The plot,”
wrote Keating, “
is in every way as good as those of Agatha Christie at her best: as neatly dovetailed, as inherently complex yet retaining a decent credibility, and as full of cunningly-suggested red herrings.”
It featured Chief Inspector Hazlerigg, who went on to appear in later novels and short stories, and another series was built around Patrick Petrella, a London based police constable (later promoted) who was fluent in four languages and had a love for both poetry and fine wine. Other memorable characters around which Gilbert built stories included Calder and Behrens. They are elderly but quite amiable agents, who are nonetheless ruthless and prepared to take on tasks too much at the dirty end of the business for their younger colleagues. They are brought out of retirement periodically upon receiving a bank statement containing a code.

Much of Michael Gilbert’s writing was done on the train as he travelled from home to his office in London:
“I always take a latish train to work,” he explained in 1980, “and, of course, I go first class. I have no trouble in writing because I prepare a thorough synopsis beforehand.”.
After retirement from the law, however, he nevertheless continued and also reviewed for
‘The Daily Telegraph’
, as well as editing
‘The Oxford Book of Legal Anecdotes’

Gilbert was appointed CBE in 1980. Generally regarded as ‘one of the elder statesmen of the British crime writing fraternity, he was a founder-member of the British Crime Writers’ Association and in 1988 he was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, before receiving the Lifetime ‘Anthony’ Achievement award at the 1990 Boucheron in London.

Michael Gilbert died in 2006, aged ninety three, and was survived by his wife and their two sons and five daughters.





who has not yet

been liquidated by the Queen’s enemies



Part I


“Oh! who would fight and march and countermarch,

Be shot for sixpence in a battle-field

And shovell’d up into some bloody trench

Where no one knows? but let me live my life.

Oh! who would cast and balance at a desk.

Perch’d like a crow upon a three-legged stool.

Till all his juice is dried, and all his joints

Are full of chalk? but let me live my life.

Oh! who would love? I woo’d a woman once

But she was sharper than the Eastern wind

And all my heart turned from her, as a thorn

Turns from the sea; but let me live my life.”

Tennyson. Audley Court


Chapter I


I dislike good-byes.

Why should a man invoke the Deity because he is moving his unimportant self from one place to another ?

My cousin Michael, who is used to my habits, takes no offence if I fail to do the conventional thing and I can still enjoy a very occasional week-end with him in his converted rectory in Kent. He is the mildest of men and makes his living by writing thrillers. It is a pleasure to see him at work, seated in what was once the rector’s study, gleaming kindly through his horn-rimmed spectacles at the hollyhocks and lupins which frame the croquet lawn.

Michael has a wife, a small, resolute, woman with the spirit of a grenadier and four fat daughters. I have none of these things. That is why I can only visit him very occasionally, for I am sure to come away disliking myself.

I got up at six o’clock. One of the fat daughters was singing a hymn but otherwise the house was quiet. I made myself some tea and started on the five mile walk to the station through the Kent countryside. The countryside was wide awake; it is only authors and business men who can afford to waste in bed the lovely hours between sunrise and breakfast time.

It took me a little under sixty minutes to reach the station and I was in plenty of time for the eight-three. This, I can only suppose, was the business train. When I got into the first class carriage (a non-smoker; I have not that particular vice myself and see no reason why I should tolerate it in others) it was empty. But as we stopped at station after little station it filled up, and I realised that I was in an exclusive sort of club. In fact, I am not sure that I had not stolen the oldest member’s seat. The other members were very upset about it.

They settled down after a bit, and took up the conversation, where they had left it off when they got to Victoria the morning before. Being unable to join in I contented myself with studying their faces. There were superficial differences but really they were the same face. The dropped and multiplied chins, the pursed mouths, the eyes which tried to look worldly but succeeded only in looking greedy and frightened. Little, tired eyes of men who spent their working days sitting in swivel chairs in over-heated offices thinking about money. I should have been hard put to it to say which of them I fancied least.

The svelte man in the corner with white hair, pince-nez glasses and an authoritative manner of speaking which he must have picked up from years of laying down the law to people who depended on him for their daily bread. Or the fat man with the pink tip of his nose – a tiny, unheeded, warning light showing what would happen to him if he persisted in absorbing more carbohydrates than his body could burn; or the military type, with field officer moustache and a velvet coat collar who was repeating, with the tired ferocity of a bilious tiger that all strikers were Communists and all Communists ought to be shot down. Not shot; shot down. Apparently an important distinction.

“I was lunching with Herbert the other day,” said the white haired man, “and he told me, but you’d better not pass it on,”— (since I didn’t belong to the Club I was presumably supposed to be deaf as well)—”that the Government are contemplating – definitely contemplating – legislation in the next session.”

“How do you stop strikes by legislation?” asked the military type.

“Quite simple. By restoring the full legal effect of the contract of service between employer and employee. Then any strike becomes a breach of contract, and the strikers become liable in damages. The damages would have to be paid out of union funds, which would soon be exhausted. No union funds, no strike pay. No strike pay, no strike.”

The fat man said that it sounded all right but he didn’t mind betting that the Government didn’t do it.

do it,” said the white haired dictator. “Do you know how much my firm lost in the last strike?”

No one knew, so he told them.

A thin man, who had not spoken up till now, said that he saw from his paper that radioactive fish were being caught in the Pacific.

They worried about radioactive fish until the train got to Victoria.

I walked from Victoria Station to Penny’s flat in Paulton’s Square. (And if you think that Penny is a silly woman’s-magazine sort of name I entirely agree with you. And it is remarkably appropriate to this particular bearer of it.)

It was well past nine when I got there and the City boys were streaming out in their bowler hats and striped trousers with all the cares of the world in their brief-cases; but not much sign of life from Penny’s flat. I picked up the paper and milk and opened the door with my key and went in.

All the washing up which had accumulated since Friday evening was piled neatly in the kitchen. She was a methodical slut. I contemplated for a moment washing it up myself, but refrained. She would only look at me out of her melting eyes and say, “Oh darling, how
of you.”

I went into the bedroom. She was lying on her side with one pillow in the small of her back and the other under her shoulder and enough of her left breast showing to emphasise the relationship between us. The female breast is not, in itself, in my opinion an attractive sight, least of all at nine o’clock in the morning.

I removed two pairs of stockings from the low chair by the electric fire and sat down.

“Did you have a lovely, lovely week-end?”

“Lovely, lovely.”

“All those sweet children. It makes me maternal to think of them. Oughtn’t we to start one.”

“Right now, do you mean?”

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