The British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar – aka “The Rock” or simply “Gib” – is a most contested territory at the strategically crucial western entrance to the Mediterranean. Two and a half square miles of Spanish peninsula controlled by the UK and with a population of 32,000 Gibraltarians boosted by many Spanish day workers and the men and women of whichever Royal Navy ships happen to be in port. Plus there’s the famous Barbary Apes tourists love to photograph and (as this is Crimereads) have been known to escape uncaptured with the odd wallet, camera or ice cream. Madrid sees the British presence as a provocation; London shows no sign of leaving and The Rock remains a sticking point in Anglo-Spanish relations. Over the centuries a unique culture has emerged – strong commercial ties to Spain, protection and support from Britain. And some specific crime writing too….
London’s “gentleman thief” Raffles arrived in Gibraltar courtesy of his continuation writer Barry Perowne, who wrote several Raffles novels pitting him against detective Sexton Blake. In Raffles’ Crime in Gibraltar (1937) our debonair thief, in Gibraltar en route back to England, finds himself accused of a crime and pursued by Sexton Blake. These are clever books recreating two much loved 1890s characters for the pre-war Golden Age audience.
Sam Benady is a Gibraltarian historian, novelist and retired paediatrician from a family that traces its root on The Rock back to the eighteenth century. Sherlock Holmes in Gibraltar (1990) is set in a pre-Watson Sherlockian world. The book is two short stories. In The Abandoned Brigantine Holmes solves the mystery of the Marie Celeste (the real-life American merchant brigantine, best known for being discovered adrift and deserted in the Atlantic Ocean off the Azores in 1861). In The Gibraltar Letter Holmes solves another true-life mystery – the kidnapping of the Duke of Connaught while he was posted in Gib. Benady, with various co-writers, went on to write the Bresciano mysteries set in 18th and 19th century Gibraltar, Spain, and Morocco (Tangier is a short boat ride away from Gib). Fall of a Sparrow (2010), The Murder in Whirligig Lane (2010), The Pearls of Tangier (2011), The Prince’s Lady (2012), The Devil’s Tongue (2013), Death in Paradise Ramp (2014) and The Dead Can’t Paint (2015) all take their inspiration from Gibraltarian history.
Now to modern day Gibraltar. Spike Sanguinetti is a Gibraltarian lawyer willing to risk everything to protect his clients. London-based Thomas Mogford’s five book Sanguinetti series starts with Shadow of the Rock (2012). It’s a humid summer night in Gibraltar when Spike Sanguinetti arrives home to find an old friend, Solomon Hassan, waiting on his doorstep. Solomon is on the run, accused of a brutal murder in Tangiers. He’s managed to skip across the Straits but the Moroccan authorities want him back. Book 2 sees Sanguinetti cross the Med to Malta (See Crime and the City: Malta) in Sign of the Cross (2013). Book 3, Hollow Mountain (2014) is firmly back on Gib with Sanguinetti chasing murderous treasure hunters through the narrow streets of the Old Town. Book 4, Sleeping Dogs (2015) sees Sanguinetti on holiday in Corfu, though trying to track the killers of a missing Albanian boy trafficked to Greece. And finally in A Thousand Cuts (2017) Sanguinetti is back in Gibraltar uncovering old secrets that impact on his past and the territories too. All-in-all the Mike Sanguinetti series is a great guide to contemporary Gibraltar – the tourist sites, the back streets and the underbelly of The Rock.
Robert Dawes’s “The Rock” series features Detective Sergeant Tamara Sullivan seconded to the sun-soaked streets of Gibraltar and the Royal Gibraltar Police following a career-threatening decision during a dangerous incident serving with London’s Metropolitan Police. On The Rock she’s partnered up with old-school cop, Detective Chief Inspector Gus Broderick. In their first case together, The Rock (2016), Sullivan and Broderick investigate a young constable found hanging in his apartment. In Poisoned Rock (2016) a Hollywood movie production has come to Gib but events reveal a murky wartime legacy of spying, sabotage and treachery running deep on The Rock. And completing the trilogy is Killing Rock (2020) events triangulate for Sullivan and Broderick: a wealthy household massacred in Spain; unidentified mummified remains found at the foot of The Rock; and a US Congressman’s run for President hangs on events in Gibraltar.
A few more Gibraltar-set crime novels:
- Jacqueline Winspear’s phenomenally popular Maisie Dobbs mystery series takes a detour to Gibraltar in A Dangerous Place (2015). It’s spring, 1937 and Maisie Dobbs is returning to England from Darjeeling. But is she ready to return? Apparently not as she disembarks in Gibraltar – in the 1930s primarily a Royal Navy British garrison teeming with refugees fleeing the Spanish Civil War across the border in Spain. Days after Maisie’s arrival, a photographer is murdered, and Maisie becomes entangled in the case, drawing the attention of the British Secret Service as she is pulled deeper into political intrigue on ‘the Rock’.
- David Black’s Turn Left for Gibraltar (2017) also looks at the wartime experiences of Gibraltar, the epicentre of the Royal Navy’s war against the Axis navies in the Mediterranean. The novel features Sub-Lieutenant Harry Gilmour (who features in six novels by Black) and ranges across Gib, Malta and neutral Spain. Washed up after being torpedoed on the Spanish coast Gilmour is posted to a submarine HMS Umbrage, operating in the waters off Malta, Harry is soon reminded that allies can be more dangerous than foes. When his volatile skipper is lost at sea, it falls to Harry to take charge of the boat—and of the lives of the men who now depend on him.
- Aaron Elkins’s Uneasy Relations (2009) is a little different. Buried ceremoniously, high in a cave on Gibraltar, lies the skeleton of a human woman, clutching the skeleton of a part-human, part-Neanderthal child. Fascinated, Professor Oliver jumps at the chance to visit the site. But two deaths, possibly murders, shake Gib.
And finally, something a little tangential as usual. In this case an old friend of the Crime and the City column, John le Carré. As an acknowledged master of location writing, scene setting and character we need to mention his 2013 novel A Delicate Truth where a British Intelligence covert operation codenamed Wildlife takes place in Gibraltar. A team of British Special Forces under the command of a man named Jeb are tasked with helping an Ethical Outcomes team of American mercenaries extracting a Jihadist arms dealer allegedly squatting in an abandoned vacation home on The Rock. The novel of course then bounces around various settings but the set piece Gibraltar opening scene is a masterpiece.
The Rock remains contentious – Anglo-Spanish relations have not improved post-Brexit and Gibraltar remains a sticking point. It’s also still a vibrant trading post, a strategic ‘eye’ on the Mediterranean for the Royal Navy, and a tourist destination. It seems likely “Rock Noir” will remain a burgeoning sub-genre of international crime writing.