Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"John had, by now, reached that well-defined stage in intoxication when every topic becomes the subject of exposition and generalisation, when sequences of thought range themselves in the speaker's mind, strewn about with flowery metaphor and garlanded in chains of pellucid logic; airborne flights of oratory to which the only obstacle is a certain difficulty with the palatal consonants."
Michael Gilbert (1912-2006) is an acclaimed British grandmaster of mystery, crime drama, and thriller genres and his Smallbone Deceased (1950) has been widely hailed as a masterpiece and ranked among the Crime Writers' Association's Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time as well as among the Mystery Writers of America's Top Mystery Novels of All Time. Well, I would not rank it that high, but the novel is compulsively readable, masterfully written, and its best feature - to me - is its delightful lack of political correctness. Being a contrarian I enjoy reading things that are likely to provoke the ire of the Speech Police, such as calling grown up women "girls", stating that "women never reason" and the like, some of which I would not even quote because I am not a courageous contrarian. Anyway, if the reader thinks that speech/language should be censored to conform to what the majority of people agree with, this may not be the right book to read.
Horniman, Birley and Craine are an established law firm in London, specializing in trusts, deeds, and inheritances. The senior partner, Abel Horniman, has just passed away (a recommended euphemism for "died"), they have hired a new lawyer, one Mr. Henry Bohun, previously a research statistician and an actuary (yay!), and the firm seems to be back on track when a gruesome and shocking discovery is made. The hilarious subtitle of the chapter is A Capital Asset Comes To Light, and indeed a very capital asset is uncovered and we have a case of murder. Chief Inspector Hazzlerigg conducts the investigation and enlists Bohun to help since the two men share military past and the mathematician-turned-lawyer is - too conveniently for the plot -definitely free of suspicion. The case is elegantly solved and the solution eloquently explained but not before another murder takes place.
The novel feels quite dated - perhaps because of the writing style - to me it seems much older than its 66 years, even if there are many books published in the 1950s that read quite contemporary. This is not a problem at all, of course, as the novel offers a vivid portrayal of the late 1940s in the UK, the times of food rationing and electricity cuts. The characters "listen to the wireless," and I am curious how many young people today know what "a wireless" is. I find the portrayal of business activities and customs of an old-style British law firm way more interesting than the criminal plot, but then I am never much into the mystery component of mysteries, and definitely not into trying to solve the whodunit. I am told the author offers enough clues for a smart reader to figure out the guilty party.
I enjoy the colorful characterizations and the wonderfully rich language: now I know what "puisne mortgage" is, what a "conveyancer" does, and what "muniments" are. I have learned about "negative Aschheim-Zondek" as well and the financial trick central to the crime is quite clever. On the other hand, the author's phrasing the characters' thoughts in complete sentences is irritating. Even worse, what is the role of Mr. Bohun's para-insomnia in the plot? It seems completely redundant and his being a mathematician (gasp!) should be enough of a shock for the reader.
A very good book, just not exactly right for me, even though there exists a personal connection - I once had a privilege to talk over the phone to the author's daughter, an accomplished writer herself, Harriett Gilbert of the BBC.
Three and a half stars.
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