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.

The Dead shall be Raised by George Bellairs – a British Library Crime Classic

On Easter Tuesday, what better than a bit of Murder at the Vicarage – fictional of course! A recent British Library Crime Classic is two stories featuring Inspector Littlejohn, and very good stories they are too.

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This book features at least two murders; good solid mysteries which kept this reader guessing to the end.

I enjoyed the first particularly as it opens with a description of a performance of Messiah in a Methodist church, featuring Superintendent Haworth, local detective with whom Littlejohn agrees to break his holiday to investigate a local crime. The performance is described in loving detail and leads to some funny exchanges, as news of a “cold case” comes into the police station. A message is sent to the church; “Now don’t go and upset him in the middle of Why Do the Nations, but give it him as soon as you can.” As the blushing constable considers exactly when to interrupt his boss, it begins to sink in that a body missing for many years has been found on the moors. It soon becomes clear that a murder assumed to have been motivated by the love of a local woman is not as straightforward as it seems, as death and disappearances mount. The final twists, appreciated by Littlejohn in all its implications, made this a murder mystery I did not solve before the end. This is a super piece of writing as the detective is seen as human, with his reactions and understanding well expressed as he tracks down those involved and guilty.

The other short novel in the book deals with the murder of a “Quack”, an unlicensed medical practitioner whose unorthodox treatments of otherwise hopeless cases may or may not have contributed to an almost locked room murder.  Littlejohn is brought in to investigate a mysterious death, and discovers a family tradition of complementary medicine which depends on observation and calculated experimentation.  Within the local community and family there are tensions to be discovered, and soon more than one suspect emerges. I enjoyed Littlejohn’s reactions to the people he must encounter, as he realises that not all of them as are a straightforward as they imagine. He detects how one character has been unduly influenced by another she has been close to, and reflects on this nonsense that his wife would soon have dealt with in her own way.

I have enjoyed the books that the British Library have reprinted by George Bellairs, or Harold Blundell as he was known in his real life in banking. As Martin Edwards says in his introduction, he was a steady, detailed writer rather than a superstar like Sayers, factors reflected in his detective creation, whose patience is needed in these tales. Of this ever growing collection of novels (a new shelf is needed for the forty plus editions in this house) this is a good buy and as murder goes, most enjoyable.

 

Death of a Busybody – George Bellairs – A British Library Crime Classic

The series of British Library Crime Classics continues to grow; I am thinking of starting a new shelf on my bookcase! This addition to the group introduces a new detective, Inspector Littlejohn, and I think he is a worthy addition, especially if you like your detectives to take second place to the mystery as opposed to dictating it. For those who like real characters, fear not; there are characters aplenty here. My favourite, apart from the bewildered Vicar of course, is Gormley, the fed up gardener and clearer of cess pits. He becomes most militant with fearful consequences  as a result of sheer grumpiness. Miss Tither’s most unsettling end comes at the start of a series of events which unspool across the village as her activities become known to Littlejohn. Red herrings, dark deeds and clues emerge which both divert and entertain the Reader, as truly no character (apart from Littlejohn!) seems above suspicion.   I really liked the Reverend Claplady, who sneaks off with an apple tart from his own pantry and After taking a large bite, he placed the rest carefully on his blotting pad for further attention later…   

As always, it is really difficult to effectively talk about a murder mystery without the dreaded spoilers. I can assert though that there are many memorable characters in this book and the plot takes some violent turns. Do watch out for the ambitious Constable Harriwinckle, whose prodigious appetite does not block his understanding or speed when ‘evidenks’ (evidence) emerges at the last.

Inspector Littlejohn is noted for his “understanding of country ways”. A chat with a bookseller recently suggest that there are more George Bellairs/ Inspector Littlejohn books to come in this series, and I look forward to them.

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In other news, why is it so difficult to actually finish a book? As usual, I have several ‘on the go’ but have yet to actually finish them. Maybe it’s the hundreds of Christmas cards that needed to go out extra early to confirm our new address, or the choir practices that go with being a member of three choirs in the run up to Christmas? Either way, I am valiantly trying…