Book Review

Blood, Death, Murder

I wrote a piece about Murder Must Advertise and its picture of life in the office in the 1920’s and 30’s. A couple of commenters recommended other detective stories.

So my library got Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert (1950) and An English Murder by Cyril Hare (1951) out of the vaults.


Reader’s report – both tightly structured, neatly put together, economical. I would read other ‘tec stories by these authors.

Smallbone Deceased is set in a solicitor’s firm which deals with wills and private estates, the kind of place that has a cellar crammed with large deed boxes. The means and the opportunity are well done but the motive is thin (“the real reason, the inner reason for that I don’t suppose we shall ever know”) and motive is prime in a whoduunnit. Whydunnit is as important as howdunnit.

Social history note- the women are all secretaries, including the capable Miss Cornel who knows more about the work than her boss, and who these days would be a partner in a law firm. No open plan of course. There are two to three in an office at most.

An English Murder is set in a favourite location for a classic English murder story, a country house cut off by snow. But it’s after the war and now a socialist government is death-dutying these places out of existence. One of the characters is a left-wing grandee who is also Chancellor of the Exchequer.


The motive is really ingenious and unexpected. The means and opportunity are less so.

The amateur detective, a mittel-European Jewish antiquarian, has an amused foreigner’s view of the crazy conservatism of the English ruling class and the coldness of their houses. “As you please, Sir Julius. I am well aware of the importance in this country of knowing one’s place.”

I brought myself up to date with a murder story published this year, A Line of Blood by Ben McPherson. It’s twice as long as the other two and more diffuse as it is a psychological thriller and so back stories are needed to fill in the psyches. My own personal taste is for the fit-for-purpose characters which Agatha Christie ran up like a sweatshop and which in period costume make good television drama.  Still, A Line of Blood has suspense, a satisfying ending and it’s a smooth read.  It is a little like Gone, Girl (though less highly coloured) in being told from the point of view of the bewildered husband and a little like Nick Hornby in its glum view of modern life and relationships in London. As for social history, it knows where it is with that. It’s impossible for a modern novel not to be socially self-conscious.


The characters no longer have an inherited income or a solid job in the professions. They are creative freelances (film producer and a writer of self-help books). The price and development of property play a big part of the story as in any Londoner’s life. The city is now multi-cultural with everyone a stranger to the village. No real justice is done as in the old whodunnits with retribution for the murderer by hanging or suicide or incarceration in a mental asylum. Like Gone, Girl, the truth is known to the reader and the main protagonists, who live with their knowledge while they shore up the damage on insecure ground.

Incidentally – and so it is in a psychological thriller as the focus is elsewhere – the means and opportunity are solid. Interest lies in the motive.