Warning: Although the murderer is not specified, there are distinctly spoilery elements to the following. Read at your own risk.
‘Smallbone Deceased’ is a very entertaining novel set in a firm of lawyers who are surprised one day by the discovery that one of their deed boxes has been used, very improperly, for the storage of a corpse. Inspector Hazlerigg investigates, with the assistance of Henry Bohun, newly employed at the firm, but the bulk of the action and interest is in the interaction of the staff of Horniman, Birley and Craine.
I first read this one about five years ago and found that, thanks to my vastly sub-elephantine skills of recall, I had forgotten the murderer completely, thus allowing me to be baffled all over again; and, though sharper brains may quite probably work out the villain, this is a good mystery with some nice misdirection. The cluing is also good, with key details buried in amongst lots of character-establishing banter and the plot is nicely thickened by Abel Horniman’s spot of light embezzlement and Duxford’s moonlighting – not that Duxford is ever a really serious contender for murderer as he is both too obviously obnoxious and too heavily scented with fish.
The real pleasure of the book, though, is in the characters and the humorous study of life in a law firm. Having Henry Bohun as the new boy in the firm gives us an introduction to the staff and the workings of the office from an outside perspective and he works nicely as a liaison with Inspector Hazlerigg, providing a useful expertise in the law without being an obnoxious, all-knowing amateur who dazzles the plodding bobby with his brilliant solution. In fact he makes quite a serious, if understandable, mistake near the end, while the Inspector swoops in to save the day. Bohun’s ‘parainsomnia’ (which appears to be a fictional disorder, as far as the wisdom of google can suggest) is not strictly relevant to the plot, but gives an unusual and interesting aspect to his character.
The other characters are mostly nicely delineated: Mr Birley, the bullying, self-important senior partner; the loyal and ever-present Sergeant Cockerill, with his DIY skills and unexpected fuschias: the dryly intelligent Miss Cornel; the straightforwardly unintelligent Miss Bellbas; Miss Chittering, aptly described in her name; John Cove, the office joker infused with a good quantity of latent schoolboy; Bob Horniman, the unwilling junior partner with a secret.
Abel Horniman, too, though deceased, is very present in the book with his own peculiar system frequently referenced. It is his dedication to the firm and flexible morality which leads directly to the first murder, while his obsession with order and method leads, ultimately, to the undoing of the culprit.
The main detective, Inspector Hazlerigg, is not one of the memorable detectives, being more of a stolid and quietly competent character than a sparky eccentric, but he’s not without a sharp intelligence and his own quiet sense of humour.
“The trouble with you,” said Inspector Hazlerigg, “is that you read too many detective stories.”
As with ‘Whose body?’ last week, this one has keeps up the tradition of a generous nod to genre clichés: here given in one long passage, plus a previous reference to “that mug in the detective story who confides all his best ideas to a friendly sort of character who turns out to be the murderer in Chapter Sixteen.”
And the Inspector is clearly a connoisseur:
“Admit,” said Hazlerigg “that you expect me to spend my time here asking a million questions. Occasionally moving round the office in a catlike manner, popping up unexpectedly when people are talking to each other, stooping to pick up minute scraps of paper and invisible threads of wool; all the time smoking a foul pipe or playing on a mouth organ or quoting Thucydides in order to establish a character for originality with the book reviewers- ”
“Well – ”
“Then, at the end of about seventy-five thousand words I shall collect you all into this room and inaugurate a sort of verbal game of grandmother’s steps, creeping up behind each of the suspects in turn and saying Boo! to them in order to make them jump. At the end of which, when everybody is exhausted, including the reader, I shall produce a revolver, confess that I committed the crime and shoot myself in front of you all.”
He then goes on to describe the more tedious but more effective and practical methods that he uses (not dissimilar to those of Freeman Wills Crofts and others).
“Well,” said Bohun. “I can quite understand why the detective story writers don’t set about it in your way. They’d never get any readers.”
“You’re right,” said Hazlerigg. “It’s damned dull.”
A few side notes to end with:
Names are often important in detective novels – indeed in novels in general – for example, as a shorthand to character, a subtle misdirection, or a source of easy humour, particularly in those extras who need not be taken seriously as suspects or even as people (from my recent reading: Chaddlewick: Throgmorton and Thipps: Ugglesby-Gore, Tuffle and Goy).
Here, there are a few examples of names with a purpose.
Smallbone himself, is perhaps the most obvious. He is a man of exceptionally small and slight build, which is somewhat important to the plot as he would otherwise be impossible to stuff plausibly into a deed box, even an abnormally large one (and, even as it is, it seems likely that the murderer would have had to squash him down hard, repack an errant limb or two and possibly jump up and down on the box a few times, cursing, before the lid finally sealed).
Birley gives a subtle impression of both physical intimidation and bullying manner. Miss Chittering is somewhat inclined to flutter and to be inconsequential in speech. Bob Horniman gets into certain romantic difficulties. Henry Bohun is slightly enigmatic and vaguely aristocratic.
And other names, of major or minor characters, give a bit of colour by being enjoyably unusual, like Bellbas, Tasker, Mildmay, Cockerill, Ichabod Stokes, Sir Henry Rollaway.
And, after all, an author has to have a little fun.
A little idle research into the Aschheim-Zondek test – of some, slight, importance to the plot – has left me both heartily glad that it no longer exists and imagining the home test version as it might be today, complete with a five-pack of baby mice, syringes, scalpels and a handy ovary colour chart.
Thucydides had a lot of genuinely wise and thoughtful quotes, with which to enrich any Great Detective’s vocabulary and erudite eccenticity.
Instead of selecting one of these, I have chosen, to conclude on an irrelevant note, this pithy and undeniably true one:
“a collision at sea will ruin your entire day”
Words to drown by.