Somehow I had managed to never hear of Michael Gilbert until I downloaded copies of both the Mystery Writers of America and UK Crime Writers Association top 100 crime novels lists last year. SMALLBONE DECEASED is on both lists and I can see why. It is quite delicious, especially in the audio version delightfully narrated by Michael McStay.
On one level the book is ‘just another’ puzzle that could be difficult to distinguish from a thousand other whodunnits. But what set it apart for me was its black humour and astute observations of human behaviour. And although it takes place 65 years ago, and bears some hallmarks of its vintage, it has a timeless quality that many other ‘classics’ fail to achieve. Although some specific details are wedded to its time and place, references to everyone’s wartime service for example, the relationships and office politics depicted were easily recognisable to me. And that puzzle is fiendishly well constructed too.
The novel opens at a staff dinner of the law firm of Horniman, Birley and Craine. Henry Bohun is a newly qualified, just hired lawyer who provides a handy point of exposition for both writer and reader. Through him we meet all the key players for events which follow and most, but not all, of the action unfolds from his perspective. The most dramatic of these events is the discovery of the body of Marcus Smallbone, a trustee for one of the firm’s trust accounts, which has been crammed into a tightly sealed Deed Box for some weeks. Restrained mayhem ensues.
Because he is too new to the firm to be a suspect, and because the police Inspector assigned to the case knows of him (and his odd ‘condition’ about which I shall say no more) Henry is allowed, encouraged even, to participate actively in the investigation and he’s an enjoyable character to travel with. He’s clever, interested and witty and his physical quirk adds a nice point of whimsy (I wonder if it’s a real thing, I deliberately haven’t googled it because, honestly, that does rather take the fun out of wondering).
I didn’t confirm it until after I’d finished the book but I was not surprised to learn Gilbert was a lawyer. The details of life in the office and the various tricks that people in that profession could, at least theoretically, get up too seemed all along to be coming from the mind of someone with direct experience of that life. I couldn’t help but ponder which of his own clients he’d stuffed into a Deed Box by proxy.
As someone who has spent a good portion of her working life organising people and their business I was quite thrilled to come across a book in which this usually ignored activity takes centre stage (the firm’s business is organised according to the Horniman system, named after the founding partner and playing a key role in the crime). But I don’t think you need my particular insight to enjoy this terrific novel. For once I agree with the list-makers, SMALLBONE DECEASED is a fabulous example of the classic detective novel: a plot full of surprises and red herrings, sharp-witted investigators and a satisfying resolution.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Michael Mcstay
Publisher Audible [this edition 2009, original edition 1950]
Length 6 hours 53 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
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