Smallbone Deceased (1950) by Michael Gilbert

Having enjoyed my last two forays into Gilbert’s work I decided to try one of his most well-known novels, Smallbone Deceased (1950). This is a tale forged very much in the golden age mould, including a floor plan at the beginning. The chapters are also entitled with days and times – something I have noticed crops up a lot in GA detective fiction. The story opens with a speech by Mr Birley, who is one of the three senior partners in the legal firm: Horniman, Birley and Craine. Alas though Abel Horniman is no more and is the focus of Birley’s speech, having died a natural death in his office 4 weeks previously. His son Bob though will be somewhat reluctantly taking his place. However our focus is predominately on Henry Bohun, a mysterious and maverick figure who has recently joined the firm and is unusually intelligent and trained/partially trained in many different occupations. All dedicated mystery fans can guess what his role will go on to be.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Bohun innocently believes that the law is ‘so restful.’ Yet this idea firmly goes out the window when one day the remaining trustee of the Ichabod Stokes Trust, (the other having been Abel Horniman), is found dead inside an air/dust/moisture/mice proof deeds box, having been murdered 6-10 weeks before; the implications of the time period being lost on no one. The investigation is handed over to Chief Inspector Hazlerigg, who featured in three other mysteries before this one, and he certainly has his work cut out. Thankfully of course he has Bohun on hand.

Overall Thoughts

Whilst this book does not have the greatest opening chapter – the amount of names to commit to memory is extensive, it does manage to improve and provide the reader with a gruesome and intriguing case. Bohun makes an amiable and engaging amateur sleuth, though he does not steal the limelight from Hazlerigg’s investigation. A key feature of Bohun’s is his medical condition, para-insomnia, which means that he sleeps no more than 2 hours a night. Of course he seems to put his extra waking hours to good use.

Gilbert recreates the office milieu well, which many a classic crime writer has used. Both the murder and the suspects fit their setting. Metafictional humour also makes an appearance in this book, though not overused. For instance the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, on hearing that Hazelrigg wants to use Bohun’s assistance, says that: ‘Only for heaven’s sake don’t be like that mug in the detective story who confides all his best ideas to a friendly sort of character who turns out to the murderer in Chapter Sixteen.’ Hazlerigg himself also goes on to joke about stereotypical sleuth tropes such as the gathering of the suspects at the end of the story to hear the solution, as well as the detective who has to always be ‘smoking a foul pipe or playing on a mouth organ or quoting Thucydides in order to establish a character for originality with the book reviewers – ’

However despite all of these positives I am afraid this review does not have a happy ending. Whilst the first half of the book shows a lot of promise and creates a great deal of expectations, these are not borne out in the second half of the story. There are pacing issues, especially with the final quarter over which the solution is drawn out. Having had this problem with a few reads over the years I have come to the conclusion that in the main solutions should be kept to a faster pace, as the longer you draw it out, the more likely, in my experience, the reader will stop caring. Equally the first half of the story sets up a number of clues and threads of exploration, but in the final half, the information which really breaks open the case is not the kind which the reader can deduce independently, meaning it becomes an instance of being told rather than shown.

I know this story is meant to be loved by quite a number of mystery fans, after all it did make it on to Top 100 crimes novels selected by the Crime Writer’s Association, but it didn’t quite live up to expectations for me. Or maybe I missed something… Alternative viewpoints definitely encouraged, though if you would like to whinge about it not working out for you either don’t let me stop you.

Rating: 3.75/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Cat

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  1. This is one of the very few books that I’ve read several times, because I love it to pieces. I confess I’ve never noticed any of the flaws you mention. To me the novel is really quite magical from start to finish.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the review. 🙂 In the end I decided to start on Anthony Horowitz’s ‘The Word is Murder’ instead of Michael Gilbert’s ‘Smallbone Deceased’. But perhaps after that… For some reason I associate this book with ‘Tragedy at Law’ by Cyril Hare – I seem to recall a review on ‘Smallbone Deceased’ mentioning legal trivia as a significant device for the mystery? Or have I remembered wrongly…?

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  3. After a detour I’ve finally returned back to ‘Smallbone Deceased’… And while I suspect I liked it slightly more than you did, I think I didn’t quite like it as much as some of the other reviewers did. I thought it was clever, with some very clever moments, but I don’t think the novel managed to grip me at any particular juncture from start to finish. And yes, I did think it began to feel slightly, though not unbearably so, long-drawn towards the final quarter of the book. Thanks for the review!

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