Friday 29 February 2008

Smallbone Deceased

Two novels vie for the title of best British whodunit with a legal setting, in my opinion. One is Tragedy at Law, by the admirable Cyril Hare. The other is Michael Gilbert’s Smallbone Deceased.

Gilbert’s book was published in 1950. His first novel, Close Quarters, was – so the story goes – started before the Second World War, but rudely interrupted by the Nazis. By the time he got round to seeing it in print, he’d endured a spell in an Italian POW camp, which provided the setting for an excellent mystery, Death in Captivity, also known as Danger Within (Don Chaffey’s enjoyable film of the story uses the latter title.)

When he turned his attention to writing a book set in a solicitors’ firm, Gilbert’s own legal career was soundly established. Quite apart from his literary gifts, he was clearly a very good lawyer; he rose to become the second most senior partner in a prestigious Lincoln’s Inn firm, and his clients included his friend, the legendary Raymond Chandler.

Smallbone Deceased makes clever use of his professional knowledge. Gilbert has a very accessible style, and his wit was seldom more evident than here, when he was writing about a world with which he was very comfortable. No wonder Harry Keating included it in his list of the 100 best crime novels. The body of a trustee is found in a hermetically sealed deed box and a cleverly conceived mystery ensues. The story features not only Hazelrigg, the cop who featured in several of his early books, but also the para-insomniac solicitor Henry Bohun, who sadly never returned in a follow-up novel, although he did feature n several short stories. I say ‘sadly’, but it was Gilbert’s way to ring the changes. He varied his characters and his plots with astonishing ease.

I like so many of his books (perhaps the out-and-out thrillers a bit less than the rest) that it’s hard to pick out other favourites. Death Has Deep Roots is a good courtroom thriller. The Night of the Twelfth is an excellent mystery, much darker in tone than most of Gilbert’s work. The Dust and the Heat and The Crack in the Teapot, very different from each other, are rich in entertainment, but also quietly thought-provoking. And there’s a late work, The Queen against Karl Mullen, which I found very impressive. Gilbert put a lot of effort into it, and was understandably disappointed when it was more or less ignored by the critics. By that time, he was an elderly man, and the focus was on more fashionable writers. As a result, few readers are aware of a thoroughly accomplished crime novel, which again makes effective use of Gilbert’s legal expertise.


Anonymous said...

I remember enjoying Smallbone Deceased ages ago. I happened to be in Murder One bookshop yesterday for the first time in ages, and smiled to see a copy of Malice Aforethought on the shelves. I took a look to see when it was first published - poor memory but I think it was the 1930s. Good on Francis Isles, as that was a pretty decent book from my recollection.

Martin Edwards said...

It certainly was, Maxine. You might like to know that on my website there is an article about Gilbert, and also on on 'The Irony of Murder' which features Iles and his followers.