Friday, February 17, 2017
Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: SMALLBONE DECEASED (1950) by Michael Gilbert
Where have I been that I've missed reading Michael Gilber's work until now? I recently saw a review on one of your blogs about SMALLBONE DECEASED (can't remember where of course) and I was immediately intrigued with the catchy title. Then I looked around and continued to read about Gilbert's many mysteries and the bigger mystery was why I'd never heard of him.
So I am since making up for lost time - after finishing SMALLBONE I ordered three more Gilbert books (Abe Books, of course has them cheap, cheap and free delivery) - can't wait to see if they'll be as good. Hard to beat perfection though. Michael Gilbert has completely won me over with this puzzler of a mystery, fourth in the Major Hazelrigg series.
And okay, I admit it, I didn't catch on to the killer's identity until near the very end and at that point, the author was practically telling me who the culprit was. I thought it was one person and then suddenly it was someone else. Slipped by me completely. I love when that happens.
Most of the 'action' in SMALLBONE DECEASED takes place in an English law office so not a lot of room for physical to-ing and fro-ing. The language is occasionally legalese and precise but still deliciously witty. Gilbert has a knack for the calmly delivered humorous phrase, wording which on second thought makes you laugh out loud. He has the keen wit of a natural observer, someone who perhaps had seen and done it all and found it all amusing.
In truth, he probably had. After graduating from law school, Gilbert joined up and served in WWII. He was captured but escaped with another soldier and endured a 500 mile journey back to the Allied front. After the war he joined a law firm and eventually became partner - all the while writing his mysteries. So between being a lawyer and a soldier he HAD probably seen it all. 'All' comes in handy when you're a prolific writer.
Back to the book:
When Marcus Smallbone, a slightly disreputable trustee whom nobody likes, is found dead at the law offices of Horniman, Birley and Craine (Gilbert had a gift for names), Inspector Hazelrigg is soon on the case. Though in this book he hardly makes any kind of impression since most of the sleuthing is
done by Henry Bohum (pronounced Boon), a young lawyer newly hired by the firm.
Henry is a likable guy with a rare disorder which allows him only about an hour and a half of sleep each night. (Though this disorder has little to do with the case in hand.) Bohun is taken into Hazelrigg's confidence and asked to keep his eyes open and make leading conversation with the rest of the staff, Hazelrigg having decided that Bohum could not be the killer. (Of course, in some other book this would be the tip-off but here it is not. Gilbert is too sly for that.)
And while the mystery itself is complicated and intriguing (who knew that attorney's metal deed boxes were that accommodatingly large?), Gilbert's wickedly amusing writing style enlivens what might have otherwise been a too remote (it is 1950 after all) enterprise set in the supposedly dull confines of an office full of grayish lawyers and clerks.
Here is a brief bit of gossipy dialogue between the firm's secretaries:
"Do you know, I believe Miss Chittering has a boyfriend.,
"Nonsense," said Miss Cornel. "She doesn't know one end of a man from the other."
I enjoyed the interaction between various employees of Horniman, Birley and Craine and most especially loved the grumpy and unpleasant style of Bill Birley, a partner who delights in making his underlings cower.
After a verbal altercation with Inspector Hazelrigg who brooks no nonsense from possible murder suspects, Birley vents:
'Mr. Birley then rang for Miss Chittering, and as soon as she got inside the room started to dictate a lengthy lease at high speed. Miss Chittering was a competent short-hand typist, but no one other than a contortionist could have taken down dictation at the speed at which Mr. Birley was speaking. As soon as she was forced to ask for a repetition Mr. Birley snapped at her and increased his speed.
Five minutes of this treatment was sufficient to reduce Miss Chittering to tears and to restore a certain amount of Mr. Birley's amour-propre.
...Mr. Birley, having disposed of Miss Chittering, looked around for fresh conquests. After a moment's thought he rang the bell and summoned Mr. Prince to his presence.
Mr. Prince, who has already flitted vaguely on the outskirts of the story, was an elderly Common Law clerk. He has spent his professional life with the firm of Cockroft, Chasemore and Butt, whom he had served efficiently, and on the whole, happily for forty years. Unfortunately the firm had failed to survive the war and Mr. Prince had found himself thrown on the labour market. Bill Birley had snapped him up gratefully, made full use of him and paid him a good deal less than he was worth. Since Mr. Prince stood in considerable awe of Mr. Birley, and in even greater fear of losing his job, he was a very convenient whipping block. Mr. Birley reduced him to a state of quivering impotence in something less than five minutes, and then clumped downstairs to plague Mr. Waugh, the cashier.'
Okay, this all had me laughing out loud. Maybe it stops the whodunit forward motion, but I really don't care. This is the sort of thing I always hope to find in British mysteries.
Speaking of which:
The story has several red herrings and an incident with a mirror which is a major clue had we but known that it wasn't the mirror. Though each chapter heading has some legal mumbo-jumbo and a quote, it doesn't necessarily uncomplicate (or complicate, as the case may be) things. The main clue is very neatly passed right in front of our eyes though in truth, the assumption made from the incident might be a bit far-reaching. However, it does make sense I suppose, so I'm not going to make too much of a fuss about it.
When a second person in the law firm is killed, the investigation intensifies primarily because the killing seems cruelly senseless and the victim is an innocuous sort who is killed because of something deadly she knows but doesn't know she knows. Nobody likes when a foolish innocent is killed.
As SMALLBONE DECEASED has been highly recommended already, there's not much I can add except that I too highly recommend it. This is the sort of thing that nobody writes anymore and isn't that just too bad. May be the reason that vintage is still so popular.
Well, since it's Friday, don't forget to check in at Edgar Award nominee and best selling author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.
Today is Troublesome/Evil Children day at Pattinase, but I'd forgotten, hence my review is not in keeping with the theme. Old lady memory strikes again.