Death of a Busybody by George Bellairs
Lately, I’ve been finding myself turning regularly to the British Library Crime Classics when I want a satisfying, Golden Age murder mystery – my favourite kind of reading when I don’t quite know what I want to pick up next, or I need a kind of mental palate cleanser. Every one I’ve read so far has been a real treat, but some stand out more than others, and occasionally my reaction has been WHY HAVE I NEVER HEARD OF THIS WONDERFUL AUTHOR BEFORE? Which was how I felt after reading “Death of a Busybody” by George Bellairs, which was pure joy!
The book, just released by the BL, features Bellairs’ regular detective Inspector Littlejohn. The book opens with the delightfully named Reverend Ethelred Claplady, vicar of Hilary Magna (a little village in the middle of English in the environs of Leicester). He’s in the process of having his cesspool cleared out by local yokel, Gormley, and he and the whole village are stunned when local busybody Miss Tither is found lying face down dead in the pool. Miss Tither was loved by nobody: a nasty, nosy, interfering woman of the type often seen in Golden Age crime, she excels in ferreting out people’s secrets and bullying them with religious tracts. There are few in Hilary Magna (or its nearby sister village Hilary Parva) untouched by her interference, and so there are plenty of people with motives. But who could have carried out the murder in broad daylight without being seen? Obviously this is a job that’s too much for the local Police force, and so Inspector Littlejohn of Scotland Yard is called in.
Enter a marvellous array of supporting characters, from Miss Tither’s cousin and heir, the somewhat dubious Rev. Athelstan Wynyard; local man Lorrimar, a piano fancier and cynic; Haxley the agnostic, one of the last people to see the victim alive; the Weekeses, a local couple of intense religious beliefs; and the portentous Walter Thornbush, leader of a local sect of Emmanuel’s Witnesses, who hopes to marry the dead woman’s maid.
On the side of the angels (or the police!) are the local Inspector Oldfield, the village bobby Harriwinckle (a comic figure who nevertheless is allowed some glory here) and Cromwell of the Yard, a wonderfully entertaining character who gets a whole chapter of investigation on his own. This latter was one of my favourite parts of the book, as we follow Cromwell taking on disguises, interrogating shady charities and having a meeting that will change his life but which is simply dropped into the narrative in passing – brilliant!
The plot is complex and involving and really well put together; although I guessed one small element, I was still caught out by the ending, and the resolution was clever and satisfying, spreading much further afield than just a simple case of local murder. There’s plenty of humour in the book, with the local rustics perhaps a little clichéd, but the author has fun sending up most of his characters – even Littlejohn is usually seen to be looking forward to his next meal, and happy to have a pint wherever the opportunity presents itself. And Cromwell is gently satirised for his obsession with sharing the name of a famous historical figure. The humour is often broad and he’s happy to puncture pomposity and extremism, as well as poking fun at silly English habits. His description of a local tea room is priceless:
The place was overwhelmingly “olde Englyshe”. Large, open, brick fireplace, carefully laid with logs, and a spinning wheel by the hearth. Brass of all kinds. Bed-warmers, hot water cans, trays, candlesticks of all shapes and sizes, splattered on the walls and standing on every available ledge and shelf. Copper cans and jugs; gongs, bells, three grandfather clocks, framed samplers, toby jugs, pot dogs, witch balls, and a hundred-and-one odd antiques, bogus or real, scattered all over the shop.
(Bellairs often uses this kind of staccato method when describing people and places for the first time, and it’s very effective)
But where Bellairs excels in is capturing the essence of English country life. The book was published in 1943, and there are references to the War and the blackouts etc; however, this part of the country is relatively untouched by the conflict and the rhythms of rural life carry on as they ever did. The use of the old English names is no doubt significant, and the book reflects a way of life now long lost, where the daily routine was dictated by the changing of the seasons.
Lest this all seems a little gentle and bucolic, it’s worth noting that there are many darker elements at play here. Murder in Golden Age times was usually an affair of killing off a deserving victim, and certainly Miss Tither elicits no sympathy. But her prying behaviour is seen to have damaging effects, and Bellairs’ portrayal of the Weekes couple is particularly stark. An ill-matched pair who married late, the wife is a religious zealot and the husband a man fighting what you might call his natural appetites and his attraction to a local girl. The couple appear to have married for convenience and finance, and there’s no love or warmth or companionship in the relationship, as Littlejohn finds when he calls at their farmhouse one night. The bleak atmosphere of hate, in which the wife is allowing the husband to drink himself to death, is chilling; and events in this cold household come to a dramatic climax.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more Bellairs seems to be exercising a voice of reason. He has no time for fanatics of any sort, whether religious, political or financial; it is the ordinary people leading ordinary lives and getting what joy they can out of everyday existence who seem to be the happiest and most favoured in his story, and that may be a reaction to the madness that was going on in the world around him as he wrote. However, putting that aside, “Death of a Busybody” is a most successful book, balancing lighter elements with dark, and I absolutely loved it. I’m so happy to have made the acquaintance of Inspector Littlejohn, and I’m quite sure my first Bellairs will not be my last!
(George Bellairs was the pseudonym of Harold Blundell; a banker and philanthropist, he published his detective stories for over 40 years and on the strength of this book it’s a mystery to me why he’s not better known. Fortunately, his books seem to be coming back into circulation, and there’s a website with loads of info about him here: http://www.georgebellairs.com/)
Review copy kindly provided by the British Library, for which many thanks!