Smallbone Deceased (Michael Gilbert)

  • By Michael Gilbert
  • First published: UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1950; US: Harper, 1950

Map of Horniman, Birley and Craine

On plotting, readability, characterisation and detection, this tale of murder in a law-firm ranks highly.  While there are some obvious similarities to Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise and Blake’s Minute for Murder, the story is distinctive.  The first murder is the startling discovery of a dead body in the hermetically-sealed deed box to which the was trustee; the second, one of the secretaries (are her actions completely believable?  Would someone open the door to admit the person they knew was trying to murder them?).  The characters are well-drawn.  As for the plotting, Gilbert is first-class at misdirection—three possible solutions, and the author knows exactly what the reader is thinking at any given point.  The detection is also first-rate: the exact balance of police routine (interesting in a way that Crofts and co. never were) and amateur detection.

Note also that the characters make reference to Chapter 16—like Carr’s characters, they know they are in a detective story.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Julian Maclaren-Ross, 2nd June 1950): The other three books of this list [Herbert Brean’s The Darker the Night and Peter Cheyney’s Lady, Behave] contain two corpses apiece: that of Smallbone Deceased is found concealed in a hermetically sealed deed-box in the offices of a firm of London solicitors; later, one of the secretaries is murdered in the same manner (strangled by a wire noose); the versatile Henry Bohun, together with the efficient Inspector Hazlerigg, eventually unmasks the culprit in time to prevent a third victim.  Mr. Gilbert employs a legal severity of style in keeping with the background of his book, leavened by the sort of wit a judge might indulge in from the bench.  The slightly facetious flavour of this may be conveyed by quoting the author’s choice of names for his minor characters: Sergeant Plumptree, Mrs. Mullet, Lord Haltwhistle and Ichabod Stokes.

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 4th June 1950): Well written, well characterised whodunnit, carefully set in a large firm of solicitors.  Plenty of delicious detail about office life—and love, which is even made at eleven a.m.  Missing trustee turns up in a deed box.  Detection by Henry Bohun, a dry, likeable insomniac, and Inspector Hazlerigg.  Mr. Gilbert has more than recovered his form.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): Two splendid murders on the premises of a London solicitor.  The motives are good, and one must call excellent the detection by Insp. Hazlerigg and an amateur assistant, who enjoys parainsomnia.  As a bonus we are given a method of mortgaging property already fully mortgaged, and a pleasant bit of fooling about the Ascheim-Zondek test and its antecedents.  All in all, Gilbert’s masterwork.