Surfeit of Suspects by George Bellairs

I’ve written before on the Ramblings about the works of George Bellairs; he’s another of those unjustly neglected authors rescued from obscurity by the British Library via their Crime Classics series and I’ve read and reviewed three of his stories. Death of a Busybody was my introduction to him back in 2016, and I did love it; a wonderful wartime tale of murder in a small country village, it balanced light and dark moments brilliantly. My second encounter was a volume containing two stories, back in 2017, and interestingly these were both set during the war too. The Dead Shall be Raised and Murder of a Quack were again great fun to read but with darkness under the surface; Bellairs knows how to handle the contrasts well. So having really enjoyed encountering his detecting team of Inspector Littlejohn and Detective-Sergeant Cromwell, I was very keen to pick up the latest release from the lovely British Library when it popped through the door recently. And “Surfeit of Suspects” turned out to be just as good a read as the earlier titles.

The story starts with a bang – literally, as an explosion in a joinery company in the small town of Evingden destroys not only the building but also three company directors inside… The Excelsior Joinery Company is a business which has been struggling recently; an old family firm which was bought out by a group of directors after the death of the owner, it’s rapidly gone downhill through mismanagement, as well as being unable to compete in a modern, changing world. But was the explosion intended to destroy the company or its directors? Littlejohn is soon summoned from Scotland Yard and as he begins to investigate he finds a real hornet’s nest.

The title of this book does not lie – there are a ridiculous amount of suspects involved! It seems that one particular murdered director, Dodds, has an awful lot of enemies, in and out of his family; and any one of them could have wanted him out of the way (particularly as there’s a useful insurance policy on his life…) However, as Littlejohn and Cromwell dig deeper, it seems that there might be more than just a personal grudge at play here….

To say more would risk spoiling the fun, but this is another clever and enjoyable mystery from Bellairs (who really should *not* have been out of print for all this time.) However, there’s another aspect which makes this book particularly interesting and that’s the time and the setting. “Surfeit” is another slightly later crime classic, published in 1964, and once more we have the world on the cusp of big changes. In this case there are a number of elements, and the strongest is that of the building of new towns; Evingden has gone from being a small town to one with a modern New Town built onto it, and the social effects are dramatic. There is still the divide between rich and poor, worker and boss, in the town but this is being changed and eroded. In a sense, the old world as exemplified by the original town, is gradually dying, to be replaced by the brave and noisy new world, and you sense a sadness from Bellairs/Littlejohn about that change.

And the clash between old and new is played out on the pages of “Surfeit”, with workers in old houses contrasted with brash modern villas in new developments. It makes for an interesting dynamic in the book, and one with which I’m actually familiar. When I was a child, my family moved down south from Edinburg to find work for my dad; we ended up in a small Hampshire town which was in effect becoming what was classed as London overspill and there was the sense of a sleepy little market town being transformed by development into some kind of odd new hybrid. The old, genteel country life hung on for a while but was eventually overtaken by the new. And later in life, my parents moved to another town which had been built for industry, taking over the small village it had once been. So much of what was happening in the book resonated and that point of change in society is captured really well here.

That’s a slight digression; however, the whole scenario of change is actually very relevant to the mystery and of course at the root of things is money; that and love/hate are so often the motivating factors for murder, aren’t they? The solution to “Surfeit” is clever and the plot twisty, involving all manner of shady dealings, and it’s great fun watching Littlejohn and Cromwell in action. I particularly enjoy how Bellairs always allows the latter to go off on little investigations of his own and he’s just as good a character as Littlejohn – they do make a good team!

Bellairs was economic writer; he packs a mass of action and plot into his 211 pages, with a story that zips along, never flagging, and he wraps up all of the loose ends in a paragraph or two at the end. This makes for a quick and satisfying read, perfect for when you need a classic crime fix, although in this case with a slightly modern twist. As Martin Edwards points out in his introduction, the book “gives us a glimpse of a long-vanished world, a world that was already vanishing even as Bellairs wrote about it.” That element gives “Surfeit of Sleuths” an extra edge and adds to the atmosphere, making it a highly recommended entry in the British Library Crime Classics series!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!