Smallbone Deceased (Inspector Hazlerigg 4) by Michael Gilbert

A unique filing system…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Young Bob Horniman has taken over as partner in the law firm of Horniman, Birley and Craine, following the very recent death of his father, the senior partner, Abel Horniman. Abel was an organisational fanatic, so there’s a place for everything in the office, and everything is in its place. That’s the theory anyway, until one day Bob and his secretary are looking for papers relating to an estate of which his father was a trustee. On opening the relevant deed box, they find the papers are missing, and in their place is the rather decayed body of Marcus Smallbone, the other trustee. Enter Inspector Hazlerigg and his team…

Gilbert was a lawyer in real life, and he has a lot of fun here with the portrayal of a mid-rank law firm – successful enough, with a solid clientele of the rich and respectable, but not dealing in glamorous criminal law. Rather, these lawyers make a living out of wills, estates, trusts and property conveyancing. When it becomes clear that Smallbone has been deceased for several weeks, Hazlerigg’s first task is to determine who was working in the firm over the likely period. He spots a name he knows – Henry Bohun, a newly qualified lawyer who joined the firm on the day the body was discovered, meaning that he is almost certainly innocent. Hazlerigg knows something of the man, that’s he’s intelligent and resourceful with a good war record, so asks him to become a kind of “inside” man for the investigation. And, while we see a fair amount of Hazlerigg and his men, Bohun quickly becomes the main protagonist of the story.

The plot is interesting and reasonably fair-play, though I got nowhere near the solution. The format is rather different from the usual mystery novel, in that, while everyone who was working in the firm is a suspect, none of them are really given known motives. The hunt for the motive is played out alongside a lot of checking of alibis and so on to work out who would have had the opportunity to kill Smallbone. There’s also far less emphasis than usual on the detective interviewing the suspects – we often learn what suspects have said second-hand, through conversations between various policemen or Hazlerigg and Bohun. I must admit I found this all kept me at more of a distance from most of the characters than I prefer, though the young lawyers all come vividly and enjoyably to life.

Challenge details:
Book: 67
Subject Heading: The Justice Game
Publication Year: 1950

But the book has other delights which more than make up for this minor lack. As a new boy, Bohun is more involved with the lowly employees than the exalted partners, and the portrayal of the young, exclusively male, lawyers and the female secretaries is great. Sexism is of course rampant, as it was in offices back in those days, but here it’s treated as fun, with the young men flirting and the women either responding favourably or rejecting them brutally. We get to overhear the women’s view of the men amongst themselves, and also the men’s opinions of the women. It’s all done for humour, so there’s no meanness or nastiness about it, and it keeps the tone delightfully light-hearted for the most part. However, we also see power at play, and how easily employees can be bullied by their bosses with no real means of fighting back.

Meantime, Hazlerigg’s team are checking out other aspects of the case. We follow Sergeant Plumptree as he tries to sift through all the various alibis of the staff, and Mr Hoffman, an accountant, who is examining the trust of which Smallbone was a trustee, and also the wider financial affairs of the firm. Surprisingly, Gilbert manages to make these rather dry subjects highly entertaining. Poor Plumptree has a tough job pinning down the whereabouts of his suspects and we’re shown the plodding, painstaking and often frustrating nature of the work, but all done with an edge of humour. Hoffman is helped in his task by Bohun, that man of many talents, and between them they show how tiny discrepancies can give the clue that leads to the unravelling of the most tightly woven plot.

Michael Gilbert

This is my first Michael Gilbert, so I don’t know how usual it is for Hazlerigg to take a rather muted role in the investigation, but I really didn’t feel as if I got to know him much at all. However I enjoyed Bohun as a kind of amateur sidekick to the police, and found the office flirtations and rivalries highly entertaining. The whole thing is very well written, with that lightness of tone despite dark deeds that I find so characteristic and appealing about Golden Age crime – this was published in 1950, so a little later than true Golden Age, but it feels as if it fits square in that category nonetheless. The British Library has republished three of Gilbert’s books this year, and I’m very much looking forward to reading the other two. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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40 thoughts on “Smallbone Deceased (Inspector Hazlerigg 4) by Michael Gilbert

  1. Long been one of my favourite Michael Gilberts. Try “Death in Captivity” – very unusual. I think most of his books are a bit dated now but these two stand up well in my opinion.

    • Oh, I have a copy of Death In Captivity, so I’m glad to hear you rate it highly too! I also have Death Has Deep Roots – those are three the BL has reissued. He’s an author I’d never come across before – I’ll never understand why some authors sink into obscurity while others remain household names. It doesn’t always seem to be the best ones who achieve literary immortality!

        • I read a couple of his books way back in my youth and remember enjoying them very much, but yes, he’s definitely slipped out of mainstream awareness now. I’ve put On the Beach on my Classics Club list – it’s really encouraging me to revisit some of these authors I’ve overlooked for decades.

  2. I was hoping the body was going to turn out to be that of one of the lawyers. Play could then have been made of Shakespeare’s ‘kill all the lawyers’ and the firm could have been wiped out one by one.

    • Hahaha! You have the mind of a crime writer… or a criminal! But you’ll be delighted to know that there is a further murder… still not one of the lawyers though… 😀

  3. Very glad you enjoyed this one, FictionFan. I have to admit, the sexism does annoy me. But that aside, it’s nice to have that portrayal of that sort of law office at that time and in that place. And I agree with you about the wit. I think that’s part of what sets this one apart.

    • I loved the wit, and somehow sexism in older books never bothers me as much as other ‘isms’ – possibly because I’m just about old enough to have been an office worker when it was still like that, and on the whole it managed to be quite fun even if it was unfair. Plus knowing that it’s changed makes it easier to be nostalgic – racism is still too prevalent to be amusing. Good stuff, though, and I’m looking forward to reading the other two of his books the BL has reissued. Have you read them? Death In Captivity and Death Has Deep Roots.

  4. Sounds fun and light. The sexism seems par for the course (though unfortunate). I can’t help thinking of Murder Must Advertise, though it involves a completely different line of work.

    • I don’t think I’ve read Murder Must Advertise, surprisingly – one day! Yes, the sexism in this reminded me very much of my own early working experiences, which oddly made me feel quite nostalgic! I’ll be getting thrown out of the sisterhood for saying that, though… 😉

  5. I don’t remember reading any of Michael Gilbert before, but this one sounds intriguing. There’s something to be said for that Golden Age of crime. Probably ought to look into finding a copy for myself (if not this one, then one of his other ones — thanks for the recommendation!)

    • I had never come across him before either, so I’m looking forward to getting to know him better! The more I read of these Golden Age novels, the more I remember why I loved crime fiction so much more in my earlier years – they really set out to entertain rather than to harrow. I think I prefer to be harrowed by lit fic!

  6. This sounds really interesting. I’m not sure how I feel about the different approach, though, since I like really getting to know the characters (especially the regulars). I will say I was surprised a dead body managed to stay hidden away for several weeks unnoticed. In my climate, it would have made its presence known rather quickly! 😷 Phew!

    • I found the distancing from the suspects a bit odd at first, but the young lawyers come to life and are a lot of fun. I still didn’t feel I knew much about Inspector Hazlerigg, though – it seemed strange for him not to be more in the spotlight. Hahaha! Apparently the deed boxes were hermetically sealed to prevent insects and rodents getting in… 😀

    • This one is thoroughly enjoyable, so well worth a place on your list. I have the other two too, but haven’t read either of them yet. I’m looking forward to them – Death In Captivity next, which sounds like a very different kind of setting for a Golden Age mystery… 😀

  7. I’m not drawn to this one strongly enough to overcome my slow down on crime, however, I recently did enjoy Postgate’s Somebody at the Door which you reviewed last year. I was quite engaged with his Home Front world.

    • Oh, I’m glad to hear you enjoyed that one. I’ve found the ones written during the war have been some of my favourites. It’s made me wonder why we all spend so much time reading historical fiction when we could actually read fiction written contemporaneously, and then we can be sure the attitudes and so on are authentic. I also thoroughly enjoyed a couple of ECR Lorac’s which were written in wartime and also a couple of George Bellairs.

    • Michael Gilbert is my favorite mystery writer. The two others books of his that BL re-issued recently are excellent in my opinion, and have been lauded by several mystery bloggers. I expect that you will like them very much as well.

      • Gosh, that’s a strong endorsement! I certainly enjoyed this one, and I must say the premise of Death In Captivity – the next one I’ll be reading – really intrigues me. It’s a shame that it seems only to be writers who have a strong recurring detective who have remained in print, probably with TV adaptations helping them, etc., while authors who tried different things seem to be more easily “forgotten”. These re-issues from the BL and other publishers are doing a great job of bringing some of the best ones back to public awareness. I admit it – I’m addicted… 😀

  8. I love the name Plumptree! This sounds like fun, and I really enjoy when motives aren’t obvious, I think it adds another layer to the mystery, because i hate being able to guess the ending!

    • Haha – I love Plumptree too! Why do I never meet people with names like that?? I enjoy having to dig for a motive too, although I also love when everybody has a motive and you have to work out which one is the fatal one! This book was very entertaining. 🙂

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