Mystery Scene magazine recently profiled Michael Gilbert, saying, ‘Gilbert seems to have had an extraordinary ability to succeed at anything he seriously turned his mind to. He did not merely dabble in legal work whilst trying to build a career as a novelist; he rose to become second most senior partner in a prestigious firm and numbered amongst his clients not only the Conservative Party and the Sultan of Bahrain—but also Raymond Chandler. His legal knowledge informed many of his short stories and novels—including the witty and ingenious Smallbone Deceased, which many regard as his masterpiece.’
This edition was published by Black Dagger, ‘a joint effort between Chivers Press and a sub-committee of the Crime Writers’ Association’ designed to introduce crime classics to a new generation of readers. I can’t argue with their ambitions, and I can’t argue with their selection of this book for their list.
Horniman, Birley and Craine is a respected partnership of solicitors with a wealthy, influential and conservative clientele. The recently deceased Abel Horniman’s renowned and unique clerical system means that they never lose a document. They do, however, find a little something extra in one of their hermetically sealed deed boxes – the body of Marcus Smallbone. Inspector Hazelrigg is assigned the case, and soon recruits an inside man in the person of new employee Henry Bohun.
Smallbone Deceased is a proper whodunnit, with a proper little map at the front (I’m a sucker for a map). Viewed as a puzzle, it is elegantly and classically constructed, with lots of tiny clues all contributing to the solution, and a strong-smelling red herring to throw the reader off the scent.
The offices of Horniman, Birley and Craine is a delightfully realised closed world and Gilbert handles his actors with sympathy as well as satirical humour. There are shades of Cyril Hare (apparently a close friend of Gilbert) in the shop-talk, chirpy office banter and legal gossip.
‘Good morning,’ said Miss Chittering brightly. ‘You’ll be qualifying for the D.C.M. if you arrive at this hour.’
‘The Don’t Come Monday.’
The legal profession itself comes in for good-natured ribbing, with particular emphasis on the archaic and over-complicated jargon.
‘She produced from her handbag an impressive piece of the firm’s best headed notepaper, addressed to the “Occupier, Head-Lessor or Sub-Lessor as the case may be…” Miss Cornel had actually typed it out and signed it herself in a thick nib in a flowing hand, and altogether it looked rather good.’
Inspector Hazlerigg went on to become a series detective but for my money his investigating assistant, the insomniac lawyer Henry Bohun, is a more memorable character.
Overall, this is very readable, extremely likeable and definitely a title I’d recommend if you like your murders elaborate, your plots fiendish, and your investigators amiable. If you haven’t read any Michael Gilbert, and he does have a lower profile than he perhaps deserves, I’d recommend getting hold of a copy of Smallbone.
Final destination: A keeper