Thursday, April 12, 2012

Smallbone Deceased - Michael Gilbert

Lawyers sure do have an edge when it comes to writing about crime. So many lawyers made successful crime writers. Among the earliest were Melville Davisson Post, John Buchan and Erle Stanley Gardner. A contemporary lawyer-turned-crime writer list includes Sara Woods, Sarah Caudwell, Scott Turow, John Grisham and Martin Edwards. And those are just the few I can immediately think of without resorting to an exhaustive internet search. I'm sure I could fill a three inch column with names. Add to that list Michael Gilbert who I have finally decided to read after years of thinking about it. I chose as my first book his most lauded work, Smallbone Deceased (1950).

This lawyers' office seems no different than many of the cubicle spotted, fluorescent lit, sterile environments I've endured over the past twenty or so years as an office drudge in a variety of hospitals, advertising firms and not-for-profit organizations. The backbiting, the secretarial gossip, the petty jealousies, the after hours office sex, the professional rivalry, the enforced weekend staffing to preserve good customer relations, and the utter absurdity of a bureaucratic office enslaved to indexing and filing systems that are continually improved upon to afford better efficiency - I have encountered it all. Nothing seems to have changed in the past fifty plus years. Even with the advent of computers and email and electronic necessities like fax and copying machines everything I read of in Gilbert's book still goes on. It's only natural that a dead body would turn up in such an atmosphere. That it should turn up in a life size deed box and that the dead body has been dead for several weeks should indicate to you the overall tone of the book. Gilbert's penchant for black humor is on exhibit in sharply drawn, acerbically funny scenes. And it's a welcome addition to this cleverly constructed puzzle.

Marcus Smallbone is the dead man in the deed box. He was a member of a trust – the Ichabod Stokes Trust to be specific. The box in which he was discovered should have held the documents for that trust. They've gone missing. An awful lot of paper to go missing, too. So who killed Marcus and what happened to those papers? Inspector Hazelrigg enlists the aid of Henry Bohun, a newly employed statistician, as a sort of informer/sidekick to get to the bottom of the dirty business in the firm.

Of the detective novels I've read from the vintage era I can only say that Murder Must Advertise comes closest to capturing the microcosm of business office culture so truthfully. Sayers also displayed her own brand of wit, but her book is too closely tied to the 1930s. Gilbert's book is timeless. Though the book takes place in 1950 with references to black market goods and post-WW2 life the book could have been written a few years ago.

Everything you may have read elsewhere (and it has been reviewed and discussed repeatedly all over the interweb) about this book being among Gilbert's best -- if not the best --is true. Add me to the list of readers who have dubbed it  "highly recommended." Those of you out there who have endured a dreary office job, whether in a law firm or some other business, will find plenty to appreciate in the pages of Smallbone Deceased.


  1. I loved this one--read it about 20 years ago. Finally picked up a copy this year. It's in my stack of books to reread...should I ever get a moment. Glad you found it to be as good as advertized.

  2. Count me among his fans. I'm going to be reviewing "Be Shot for Sixpence" for Bev's challenge soon. I've yet to find a clunker among his books. And he was an interesting fellow.

  3. John: You have convinced me. I am going looking for the book. I love good legal mysteries.

  4. This is a great book--and not just for the ingenious murder and subsequent plot. As you said, the standard ofice "types" are on full display here and it doesn't seem dated. I guess that's because while technology may change, human nature rarely does.

  5. 15, 2012 at 7:29 AM

    A novel pretty.
    It was published eight years ago in Italy and then republished four years ago.
    It's one of those novels in which a box, a chest, a trunk are used as a temporary tomb. Such the existence of this object, takes us back to years gone by now. Today, there are chests or trunks only in old houses or houses, or houses furnished with antiques. I remember other novels in which a box or a chest or a trunk were used as described in this novel: for example, "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe" by Agatha Christie, or "Le Tueur Numero Deux" by Pierre Mac Orlan, or "The Day of the Jackal", by Frederick Forsyth.
    I also remember the movie "Rope" by Alfred Hitchcok.


  6. I do miss the days when bodies were found in solicitors' offices....

    1. LOL! And how many turned up at your place of work, Martin?

  7. My lips, like the deed boxes, are sealed......