Surfeit of Suspects by George Bellairs – A British Library Crime Classic of the 1960s reprinted


Too many suspects emerge when an explosion rocks a new town. Is it love, money or jealousy that gives motives to a number of people who may or may not be involved in the death of three men, all directors of the Excelsior Joinery Company. In this 1964 novel reprinted by the British Library in their Crime Classics series, George Bellairs (in real life a bank manager called Harold Blundell) brings back his detective Thomas Littlejohn. Sent from Scotland Yard with his trusty sidekick Inspector Cromwell, Superintendent Littlejohn has to immerse himself in local gossip and financial details of the ailing business in order to get through to the truth. This is a story of its time, in that the women are seen in a particular way, but at least they are clearly defined and actual characters rather than just makeweights. 


The setting of Evingden, a new town growing out of a well established settlement, has all the gossip of families based in the area for generations, alongside the young and ambitious who are determined to move in and make their fortune. Thus Littlejohn must tackle those who have lived modest lives in small cottages as well as those in new expensive houses as he tries to discover what is really going on with a company apparently in financial dire straits. The implications for the changing society that was emerging in the 1960s forms a realistic background for a mystery that works well in a limited community. I was really pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this classic crime. 


This is a well written book which features some well described characters. Ranging from the descriptions of the deceased through to the various notable residents of the town, there is room both for those who are saddened by the crime and those who are far more interested in the financial implications. As usual, Littlejohn and Cromwell are methodical in their investigations, but it is the subtle messages that witnesses and others give that inform the detectives of what is really going on. The blustering of men who find their questions intrusive, the quiet resignation of those who have lost much and the contrast between women who have quiet determination or the need to be the centre of attention are all faithfully drawn in this well paced novel. The convincing dialogue which runs throughout is cleverly used by Bellairs to form an accurate picture of the people potentially involved in the crime. 


This fairly recent reprint of a crime classic in the later stage of the era of golden age detection is not a brutal or harsh description of British life, despite the drama of the opening pages. With the usual informative and contextual introduction from Martin Edwards, it is an enjoyable read with a good number of false trails and red herrings. This is an author who has experience of setting up a situation and peopling it with realistic characters, and bringing in a detective who will solidly work to discover the truth, even if the network of suspects are reluctant to co-operate. There are also flashes of inspiration which never detract from what has gone before to make this a significant and enjoyable novel.  I recommend this book to those who enjoy this set of classic crime novels, and also those keen to discover one of the masters of the genre for the first time.    


After quite a gap in posting reviews of the British Library series, I am hoping to tackle far more over the next few months. I am hoping to look at other books from the Library’s publishing section, so watch this space!

Meanwhile I survived the twice yearly Big Booksale in the church hall. Despite the really inclement weather (rain, wind and general grey) we had a good turn out. Now I am left with a puzzle – Dornford Yates. Does anyone read him? I have discovered some facts about him, and would be grateful if anyone has a view of this early to mid twentieth century British writer, please.

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