[A private boys’ school: Mr Manifold has replaced another teacher, Millison, who had problems with the boys]
‘I hear you pulverised One-B,’ said Alastair McMurtrie.
Manifold inspected the seven boys who made up One-A. Most of them he could already identify. McMurtrie, freckled, snub-nosed, well-developed, with the build of a second-row forward. Jared Sacher, a dark beauty with alarmingly intelligent eyes. Peter Joscelyne, small, quiet and withdrawn. The Warlock brothers, totally unlike each other, yet each with a hint of their father’s often-photographed face. The fat boy with the permanent smile must be Monty Gedge and that left – forgotten the name – father a barrister – Paxton. Terence Paxton.
‘We had quite a lively first meeting,’ he agreed…
‘They’re a bunch of stupid kids,’ said Sacher. ‘It was only that Mr Millison was such an ass. I’m sorry, sir. But he was. You know what started the rot? It was in Scripture. One of them asked him what a harlot was. Well, really! That’s been a standing joke for years. All he had to say was, it’s the biblical name for a tart and they’d have known where they were.’
‘What did he say?’
‘According to those that were present he blushed and said, “Well, Paine, it’s – um - a girl who has – er – lost her way.” After that they pulled his leg until it nearly came off. When anyone on one of his walks took a wrong turning, they used to shout in unison, “Come back, you harlots”.’
observations: When Christine Poulson and I shared our lists of favourite books set in schools (last week, see here and here), neither of us included this one – but Christine remembered it later and mentioned it in a comment, so I decided to read it, and am still quite thrown by it. It is a strange mixture of a traditional school mystery (lots of funny dialogue, rather wonderful young teacher, very knowing and precocious but delightful boys) and a thriller – the son of the Israeli Ambassador is a pupil, and there could be danger – and something more weird: there are signs that a sadistic killer on the loose.
It’s a lot to fit in in a short book, but Gilbert does a masterly job of combining these strands, and has some excellent diversionary tactics, which only strike you when you think about the story afterwards – and I thought about it quite a lot. There are interesting discussions in the staff-room about corporal punishment, and a lot of attempts at psychological diagnosis. I ambled along with the plot, finding the thriller aspects and police investigation much less entertaining than the scenes in the school, and I had spotted a few good clues - and then the final quarter kept me pinned to my seat as I desperately wanted to know what was going to happen, in a way that I don’t often feel. Christine described the book as chilling, and it certainly was - positively unnerving at times.
The 14-year-old boys plan to drink some vodka as an end-of-term treat, which surprised me as much as the murders: a half-bottle cost £1.80, relatively a lot more than it would cost now - in modern terms that’s something like £17.
The boys are going to stage a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and my one criticism is that very little is made of this, it has no relevance to the plot. (Josephine Bell’s Death at Half-Term also deals with a performance of Twelfth Night in a school).
This is a clever and very entertaining book, it is very funny at times, and Gilbert leads you astray in the smartest of Christie-like ways – you make assumptions about all kinds of things…
Michael Gilbert's Smallbone Deceased - from 1950, nearer the beginning of his remarkable and lengthy writing career - is on the blog here.
The picture is from the New South Wales archives.