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MICHAEL GILBERT. Smallbone Deceased (1950).

01 Nov

Could anything be duller than a novel set in a London solicitors’ office? That is, after all, a milieu in which dullness serves as a prime objective—in which, by design, one day spent conveyancing deeds of property and engrossing bills of exchange blends indistinguishably into another. A murder or two will help redeem a tale with this backdrop from the curse of tedium, but violence alone is hardly sufficient to the task. Also required are a minutely calibrated sense of character (How else can an author and his readers distinguish between suspects who embody shades of legal gray?) and a flair for satire. SmallboneDeceased.jpg Gilbert possesses both of those qualities and here puts them on display to enchanting effect. He strikes a particularly mordant note in the opening sequence of the novel, when staff members of the firm Horniman Birley and Craine discover the remains of one Marcus Smallbone inside a large deed box. Chief Inspector Hazelrigg, who appears in several of Gilbert’s early efforts, handles the investigation into who caused Smallbone to become deceased, and a young solicitor named Henry Bohun plays a supporting role. (Bohun functions as an alter ego of Gilbert, who maintained a career in the law even as he produced a large volume of crime fiction.)

After beginning in a sprightly fashion, the narrative sags in the middle (as mystery novels often do) but then closes in the grand tradition: Suspicion tilts now toward this person and now toward that one, until suddenly all of the evidence points decisively in yet another direction. The author sneaks much of this evidence by the reader in broad textual daylight, and he handles physical clues with a special sureness of touch. On point after point, the basic artistry of Smallbone Deceased helps explain the high regard that the book has earned among enthusiasts of the traditional English mystery.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on November 1, 2018 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

2 responses to “MICHAEL GILBERT. Smallbone Deceased (1950).

  1. Christophe

    November 2, 2018 at 8:19 PM

    Michael Gilbert is my favorite author of detection/mystery fiction. To the qualities your review already mentions, I would add dry wit and elegant style.

     
    • Mike

      November 3, 2018 at 4:52 PM

      Thanks for the comment, Christophe. Though I’ve read only a few books by Gilbert, I agree that he stands out for the high quality of his literary craftsmanship. I particularly like “The Danger Within” (reviewed elsewhere on this blog).

       

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