Title: Smallbone Deceased (Inspector Hazelrigg #4)
Author: Michael Gilbert
First published in 1950; reprint by British Library on 22nd January 2019
Genre: Crime and Mystery
Horniman, Birley and Craine, of Lincoln’s Inn, are a reputed law firm in London. When a deed box in the firm is opened, a corpse is found in it. The dead body is that of Marcus Smallbone, one of the trustees of the Ichabod Stokes Trust. The other trustee is none other than the senior partner of the law firm, Abel Horniman.
The reputation of the law firm is threatened when the murder of Mr Smallbone is found to be an inside job. The partners and staff keep an eye on their colleagues as Chief Inspector Hazelrigg sets out to solve the mystery behind the murder of Mr Smallbone.
Characters: Senior Partners – Abel Horniman (deceased)/replaced by his son Bob Horniman, Mr Birley and Mr Craine; On-the-pay-scale partners: Henry Bohun, Duxford and John Cove; Secretaries: Miss Cornel, Miss Bellbas. Miss Chittering and Miss Mildmay; Watchman/Caretaker: Sergeant Cockerill;
This is the second Michael Gilbert that I read and I absolutely loved it! Be it the pacing, the terrific characters or language, or the plot, Gilbert manages to captivate his readers with this mind-blowing story.
The story starts with some shop talk by the secretaries and Bob Horniman trying to adjust to his new life. Henry Bohun who’s just joined the firm also seems to be adjusting to the life surrounded by lawyers and absurd clients. Bob Horniman, by chance, finds the document about the Ichabod trust. When Miss Cornel visits Mr Smallbone’s lodgings, she learns that Smallbone’s been gone away for almost six weeks now. Bob Horniman finds that the key to the deed box of the trust is missing. When Sergeant Cockerill breaks the lock, they find a corpse in the box – the dead man is none other than Mr Smallbone.
Chief Inspector Hazelrigg is assigned the case. He and Henry Bohun are buddies so he asks Henry to keep an eye on his colleagues and report if anything suspicious is found or heard. Mr Birley seems to be irritated by all this – the policemen in the office and Henry, a newbie, being all friendly with the police – not something that Mr Birley likes.
The story is superbly concocted. From fraud to murder to secrets of the partners, the story is full of twists, turns and red herrings. The two characters that stood out the most, in my opinion, were Chief Inspector Hazelrigg and Henry Bohun. Both of them are very good at deducing things, especially at the end, when one of the lives is in danger and the duo realizes it – hopefully before it’s too late.
Sergeant Plumptree’s role in the story is appreciable too. He plays a less significant role in the story (more like a supporting cast) but he’s a hard-working and sincere policeman. Finding clues takes him to places small and big in London and he never complains about, not even once! John Cove is another such character who plays quite an interesting role in the story. From a playboy to a detective, his transformation was totally unexpected. (The detective part is almost at the end of the story).
Coming to the role of the secretaries, the story was written during the time when women were not very encouraged to work or be successful at what they do. Though Miss Bellbas and Miss Cornell had good bosses, I cannot say the same about Miss Chittering. The poor lady was practically bullied by her boss, Mr Birley. Bad Mr Birley, very bad!
For those who are planning to read Gilbert’s books, I would like to say, expect an introduction to lot many characters at the beginning of the story. I see this as a trend from the two of Gilbert’s books that I have read so far. In Death in Captivity, there were so many characters and it was kinda hard to remember all their names. But, as the story proceeded, only three or four characters played a major role. It’s the same in Smallbone Deceased too. So, do not worry if you are introduced to a lot many characters in the beginning because as the story proceeds, you will understand that all of these characters play an equally important role in the mystery. Also, only a few characters make a constant appearance in the story – in this story, it’s Henry Bohun and Inspector Hazelrigg.
If I have to describe Smallbone Deceased in a sentence, I would say it is an engaging, thrilling and brilliant page-turner. If you love detective stories, especially those set in the mid-1900s then do not miss to read this book, or for that matter, any other books by Michael Gilbert.