I recently recommended Michael Gilbert to (I think) Annie because I thought she would like his dry wit. Then, between helpings of Henry Green, I revisited my first-ever and possibly favorite Gilbert, Smallbone Deceased. This is one of those mid-20th-century English mysteries set in a solicitor’s office and I’m not giving away much plot by telling you that the body of Marcus Smallbone is found in a deed box.
What I am doing is announcing the slightly arch tone of the novel. We all know where we are, right? Not a “locked-room” novel but a locked box novel, with a diagram at the beginning and a methodical Scotland Yard detective and many, many cups of tea. Reading Smallbone Deceased was sort of like doing the cha-cha with an expert; heeding the conventions is part of the fun.
But so is mocking them. About halfway through the book the genuine detective, Hazlerigg, complains to his appealing amateur helper Henry Bohun:
The trouble with you… is that you read too many detective stories… you expect me to spend my time sitting here asking a million questions. Occasionally moving round the office in a catlike manner, popping up unexpectedly when people are talking to each other, stooping to pick up minute scraps of paper and invisible threads of wool; all the time smoking a foul pipe or playing on a mouth organ or quoting Thucidydes in order to establish a character for originality with the book reviewers…
Bohun is a particular favorite of mine, sucker that I am for the casual polymath. His peculiarity is that he suffers from “para-insomnia” which means he only sleeps two hours a night and suffers no ill effects. He has thus been able to train as an actuary, endure two years of medical school, and qualify as a solicitor in a very short time. He is a lawyer by day, a watchman by night. He cracks the case with a little piece of math.
Here is my favorite throwaway line in the whole book. Gilbert is summing up investigation into the secretaries of the law firm in whose office the deceased man was found. All are questioned, including “Cissie Chittering who lived in Dulwich and spent her evenings in country dancing and decorative poker-work, and Florence Belbas who lived in Golder’s Green but apparently had no other hobbies.”
If that’s the kind of thing you like, Smallbone Deceased is delicious.