The Dead Shall Be Raised & The Murder of a Quack by George Bellairs
… in which I happily return to British Library Crime Classics! :)) And reading them certainly is becoming something of a compulsion. One of my favourite discoveries of 2016 was the author George Bellairs, via his wonderful book “Death of a Busybody”, and I was just shocked that I’d never come across him before. Fortunately, BLCC have produced another Bellairs volume, this time containing two short works featuring his regular detective, Littlejohn, and these were just as much fun as the first book.
Interestingly, both stories are set during the Second World War. The first “The Dead Shall Be Raised” takes place at Christmas 1940, when Littlejohn is travelling to visit the northern town of Hatterworth where his wife is recuperating from a bombing raid on their London home. The opening chapter, where the detective travels through the blackout deep into the country, is wonderfully evocative and a little creepy; and things become more sinister when the Home Guard, doing manoeuvres on the nearly Milestone Moor, unearth a dead body. This transpires to be a corpse which has lain undiscovered for 23 years since the last years of the First World War; the body is that of someone who was suspect of murdering his friend and then making off into the night, and so what was thought to have been a single murder is now a double one.
Fortunately, the local superintendent, Haworth, has already clicked with Littlejohn, and so the two men set out to solve the cold case. Along the way they’ll have to dig into the past, interviewing those survivors still in the area including a mill manager made good, a formidable old lady, a slippery thief and all the locals who remember the event. One of my favourite kinds of murder story is when a crime from the past proves to have long tentacles and comes to light decades later to be investigated by one of our regular sleuths. It’s a trope Christie used well, and often, and Bellairs puts it to great use here; the contrast between the two wars is never overplayed, but is there as a subtle presence, and there is a sense of retribution and justice being done when the story reaches its satisfying end.
The second story “The Murder of a Quack” is set in a Norfolk village, where the local homeopath (or ‘bonesetter’ as he’s often termed) Nathaniel Wall is found murdered in rather unusual circumstances. The man was popular locally, often succeeding where the local doctor failed; the latter has become something of an enemy and is the obvious suspect for Wall’s murder – though things are never going to be that straightforward. Complications arise with spurious alibis, a local girl who was unofficial ward of Wall being engage to a fairly unpleasant type who claims to be an author but whose actual occupation is vague, and the local eccentric Daft Dick. Rather wonderfully, we’re reintroduced to the entertaining Detective-Sergeant Cromwell, who appeared in the first Bellairs book I read and who excels in speeding off round the country and sleuthing. Here he does just that, as this crime also proves to have long tentacles reaching back to the past, and Cromwell not only finds plenty of useful information, but also has much of his future life organised almost in parenthesis – which is great fun!
In fact, fun is a word I’d apply to reading George Bellairs. There is a serious side to the crimes in both books, and a strong sense of morality, with Littlejohn representing the forces of good and quite determined to track down his villain as well as putting paid to any unpleasant characters he happens to come across. And Bellairs can create a wonderful sense of darkness and atmosphere – his descriptions of Milestone Moor (rather chillingly based on Saddleworth Moor of later notoriety) are powerful and memorable.
The vast, cold moor was a rare place for holding secrets. A silence seemed to brood over it, punctuated now and then by the cries of birds or the shouts of the Home Guard, still manoeuvring vigorously. Even the presence of so many men over the wide expanse seemed powerless to dispel the loneliness. The elemental seemed to hang over the scene. The creeping fingers of the powers of destruction worked unseen, twisting and stunting the vegetation, tearing down the boundaries erected by man, shattering his habitation and sliding relentlessly over fields he had cultivated, dragging them back to the wilderness.
Nevertheless, Bellairs balances the darkness with a healthy dose of humour, and his books really are a delight to read. There’s usually a caricatured local plod who speaks with a country accent and bumbles about a bit; however, the local bobby is usually treated fairly and allowed plenty of the glory, and certainly in the second of the stories here, the village man (who has the wonderful name of Mellalieu), is crucial to the successful conclusion of the investigation. Although he sometimes paints his characters with a broad brush, Bellairs never loses his sympathy with them, his empathy, and his understanding of human nature.
If I had to make any criticism it would be that Bellairs sometimes rushes his story; the novels are short and would benefit occasionally from a little more expansion of a particular character or plot element. But this is a minor quibble and the book cracks along at an exciting pace making it one of those unputdownable reads. Littlejohn is an engaging detective; an ordinary man with no quirks or peculiarities like Holmes or Poirot, he nevertheless has enough charisma to keep the reader gripped and I’m very much looking forward to reading more of his adventures. Let’s hope there are more Bellairs titles to come from the lovely BLCC series!