Smallbone Deceased

Written by Michael Gilbert

Review written by LJ Hurst

Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung

Smallbone Deceased
British Library Publishing
RRP: £8.99
Released: January 10 2019

Smallbone Deceased was first published in 1948. Michael Gilbert, who had become a solicitor at the end of the Second World War – only three years earlier – was rapidly putting his experience to use.

His young and newly qualified protagonists are being introduced to the established ways of an old and conservative law firm, which is useful for we readers, too, because before too long one of the firm’s few improvements (an enhanced deed box) proves itself to be a very adequate place for depositing a murdered body. When Inspector Hazelrigg, arrives with his team Gilbert divides attention between the staff and the police investigation.

Social historians will be fascinated by Gilbert’s description of the sexual division of labour: the solicitors are all men, and their secretaries and office staff are women. This doesn’t mean that the women are powerless, but theirs is soft power: “Miss Mildmay looked up as a bread pellet struck her on the cheek [at the founder’s wake] and remarked in a clear voice: ‘If you hit me again with one of those things, John Cove, I shan’t type any more of your private letters for you in office hours.’ ” Later on, the question of relations between the sexes becomes more interesting as Gilbert slips slang into the conversation: “If you’re looking to long Saturday mornings alone with Anne Mildmay, take my tip and lay off. That girl’s ginger.” Did the speaker mean “ginger” in the sense of a fiery personality, or was he using rhyming slang, “ginger beer/queer”? If the latter was queer was it to be understood in the sense of lesbian, or as unusual?  This is less than half-way through the book and may seem a diversion, but as the plot is resolved then sexual relations even if platonic will prove to have played a part.

Young people then were expected to fit and healthy, ready to set off on hiking weekends and holidays, knapsacks on their backs. Unfortunately, some of the new staff are louche and frequenters of late-night bars. When one learns that the alternative drinking venue offered is the Public Schools Club one realises that these young people are not all socialist equalisers: the “sergeant” who acts as caretaker is branded as lower class when he speaks of the “futures” in his garden, rather than his “fuchsias”.

The other fascinating part of the story developed by Gilbert is the discovery that Hazelrigg is scarcely interested in how the body came to be deposited in the office store, and instead is using a forensic accountant to examine the practice’s finances, looking for a motive among loans, mortgages and falling rates of profit.

The reader may have difficulty in solving the mystery before the final revelation because it depends on an earlier coincidence which has been signalled (who did go hiking?)  but has not stood out (and I was re-reading the book), but overall, I found Smallbone Deceased well worth reading.


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