GREAT CRIME NOVELS
Recommended by Cormac Millar
7. SMALLBONE DECEASED by Michael Gilbert (1950)
Michael Gilbert (1912-2006) was an English solicitor who wrote a string of entertaining and well-turned mysteries, both novels and short story collections, published from 1947 to 2002. He could deal with grim political realties in thrillers such as The Empty House (1978), but was equally adept at depicting closed worlds and playing teasing games of puzzlement with the reader in old-fashioned, rule-bound detective novels. In Smallbone Deceased we enter the rarefied cosy world of a London solicitors' office, the sort that the author knew well from personal experience (Michael Gilbert was himself a partner in such a firm from 1952 to 1983, one of his clients being Raymond Chandler). In the fictional Horniman, Birley and Crane, everything runs on smooth and predictable lines. Except that somebody has unkindly done away with one of the trustees, a Mr Marcus Smallbone.
We meet a delightful range of characters, presented in sharp comic outline and as full of personal quirks as the characters in a comedy by Wilde or Goldoni, or the two-dimensional creatures who lurk around the edges of a Dickens novel. They all have their little obsessions, their secrets to be carefully concealed. Into their midst steps the investigator, an awkward insomniac genius called Henry Bohun, who notices things. The permutations, false developments and red herrings are manipulated with the light touch of a Haydn symphony, and the book plays out as a sort of fugue whether the elements interact in ever-changing combinations, with just one anomalous detail to betray the murderer. For 1950 Smallbone Deceased was already a retro creation; today it is definitely a period piece, carried along by its own sparkling intelligence.
In his obituary for Michael Gilbert in The Guardian (10 February 2006), H.R.F. Keating praised Smallbone Deceased as "a story rightly hailed as a classic of the genre, rich with everyday details of a law practice, both good and naughty, dancing too with pawky humour; at the same time it sets a puzzle to please the most exigent of readers and provides, surely, the most intriguing place ever for the body to be found - in a slightly oversized deed box."
The book has oftenout of print and offeredon some sites at an exorbitant price. RECENTLY, HOWEVER, IT WAS REISSUED BY THE RUE MORGUE PRESS (COLORADO) IN A LARGE PAPERBACK FORMAT.
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