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Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert

Smallbone Deceased (1950)

by Michael Gilbert

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Inspector Hazelrigg (4)

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280964,209 (3.92)57
Horniman, Birley and Craine are a highly respected legal firm with clients reaching to the highest in the land. They use a system of keeping important documents in deed-boxes and when one of them is found to contain the remains of a certain Mr. Smallbone, the threat of scandal reaches their innermost psyche. Even worse, the police now suspect that the murder was an inside job. Suspicion falls on everyone and each member of staff keeps a wary eye open. Gilbert is both authoritative in his narrative and writes with such style and pace that 'Smallbone Deceased' is regarded as one of his best.… (more)



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The deed boxes found in a mid-20th-century London solicitor’s office usually contain paper deeds. However, one deed box at the firm of Horniman, Birley and Craine contains evidence of a much fouler deed: the body of Marcus Smallbone. And as if that weren’t enough scandal, the fact of the body being found where it was suggests strongly that someone involved in the firm committed the crime. It’s up to Inspector Hazlerigg to figure out who it was.

I found this a highly satisfying entry in the British Library Crime Classics imprint and well worth inclusion on the “best crime novel” lists it’s been added to over the years. Gilbert worked for a law firm and deploys this expertise to advantage without overwhelming the general reader. The writing style is smooth and Inspector Hazlerigg in particular gets some good one-liners—I do like a detective who doesn’t take themselves too seriously, and I like when characters in detective stories accuse each other of reading too many detective stories. It’s a bit of a cliche now, I think, but in the classic crime novels it’s always delightfully meta. ( )
  rabbitprincess | Sep 1, 2019 |
This is an immensely enjoyable mystery about a body turning up in a file box at a law firm. With a small cast of characters, you'll definitely be trying to figure out who did it. I got it wrong. It does go on a bit too long at the end, but Mr. Gilbert's depiction of the life of the lawyers (all male of course), their drinking, and their conversations are highly entertaining. Mr. Gilbert, a lawyer himself, definitely knew the territory. ( )
  datrappert | Jun 5, 2017 |
An excellent mystery revolving around a law firm. ( )
  leslie.98 | Aug 30, 2016 |
When the senior partner of the firm Horniman, Birley and Crane, Abel Horniman dies, his son Bob, a war hero from the Navy, takes over his share of the partnership. Bob needs to find Mr Smallbone who is a co-trustee of one of the accounts his father managed. In addition there appears to be some money missing. Everybody he contacts thinks that Smallbone, an avid collector of ancient artifacts, has gone off to Rome on a buying trip. The discovery of his body thus comes as a surprise although the reader always knows that he is dead from the title of the story.

Someone who has recently begun working at the firm becomes the amateur sleuth especially after there is a second death. Inspector Hazelrigg from the Yard pursues enquiries too and separately they come to the same conclusion.

This is a sort of "sifting the evidence" book, eliminating suspects one by one, but even so the author has a surprise in store for us. As the blurb says, a classic English murder mystery. ( )
  smik | Mar 3, 2016 |
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.
1 vote bsquaredinoz | Jan 14, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Michael Gilbertprimary authorall editionscalculated
Mcstay, MichaelNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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