The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs

Hot on the heels of my last BLCC (from the wonderful John Dickson Carr), and as a bit of an antidote to the *big* reading for 1930, I felt the call of another dose of classic crime – and as a new edition of a George Bellairs mystery had popped through the door from the lovely British Library, it was a bit a no brainer as to what I’d choose next! I’ve read a number of Bellairs’ titles, featuring his detecting team Superintendant Littlejohn and Sergeant Cromwell; so much so, that it feels like returning to old friends when I read a new Bellairs! They’re always a delight, and this one was no exception.

The book opens dramatically, with Littlejohn being thrust straight into the action. He’s been staying in Fen country, assisting the suitably-named Fenshire police with a forgery case, when a body is discovered in the local River Lark, known as the Dumb River of the title. Normally, it runs silently and unobtrusively, but Littlejohn is visiting Fenland in the middle of a massive storm which brings all sorts of floods and drama to the area. The dead man is known as Jim Lane locally; a small man, he travels with a fairground that visits regularly, in the company of a woman called Martha Gomm. However, investigation reveals that he is really James Teasdale, a man from Yorkshire who’s married with a family. Jim/James has obviously been leading a double life, and once the two policemen have done their local detecting (as well as helping out with the aftermath of the floods), the focus of their investigations turns north to Yorkshire, and the rather appalling family that Teasdale had to suffer.

Because appalling they really are! His wife is a selfish, snobbish, grasping woman with no sympathy at all; his daughters have inherited all their mother’s traits; Jim’s father-in-law is a bullying ex-army man; and Mrs. Teasdale’s siblings are equally greedy and unpleasant. Jim has struggled to make a living and to support his dependents and in the end took to going off for weeks at a time making money through the fair, while telling his wife he was a travelling salesman; her snobbish nature simply couldn’t have coped with the reality. Really, you couldn’t want for a worse family setting, and I found myself completely understanding why the man had sought some happiness and companionship with Martha Gomm while they were on the road.

Initially it seems that Jim was killed in Fen country; however, the medical evidence proves otherwise and so Littlejohn and Cromwell have to tackle the Teasdale family in all their gruesome glory. They meet with evasion, lies, hysteria and downright nastiness; it seems that Teasdale was a disappointment to them all, and none of them actually are upset by his death. There are plenty of twists and turns, lots of drama, and it takes all of Littlejohn’s skill to find the solution; I had a vague inkling of where the mystery was going, but there were still some lovely surprises at the end.

“The Body in the Dumb River” was a satisfying and completely enjoyable story, displaying all of the traits I love from Bellairs. His writing is always excellent; economic, and yet he manages to paint character and atmosphere brilliantly. His descriptions capture niftily life in a small town with its pettiness and ridiculous need for status. He always displays a sympathy with the underdog; Littlejohn obviously does not like people full of posturing and hypocrisy, preferring the honesty of Jim and Martha’s illegal union to that of a false marriage, and recognising the happiness it brought Jim to find refuge from a horrible home life. The whole story of the two was actually quite touching, and made me reflect on the horrors through which human beings can put one another. The Teasdale family are almost grotesques, very damaged people, and this carries on down the generations with the youngest members being as unpleasant as the eldest.

The church clock was striking ten as Littlejohn and Cromwell entered the police car which was taking them to the cemetery for James Teasdale‘s funeral. The atmosphere of the town was not funereal at all. It was market day and stalls had been erected in the space in front of the town hall. There an exuberant crowd of stallholders were already shouting their wares, mainly eatables, with here and there a dash of clothing or cheap jewellery. The place was seething with life. Dominating all that was going on and looking slightly disapproving of it, was the stern bronze statue of Bishop Duddle, the only famous man who ever was born in Basilden. He had been martyred and eaten by cannibals of his diocese in the South Seas and now stood among the market folk, pointing to heaven, indicating the place to which he had gone after all his troubles.

Bellairs is not without humour, though, and his description of Jim’s funeral is a wonderful mix of pathos and farce. His characters are occasionally maybe a little over-dramatised, but I guess that’s so he can create sympathy for his underdogs. He’s a very open-minded author, too, having his characters refer to travellers as good people and much more worthy than the middle-class horrors of Yorkshire; it’s very clear where his sympathies lie. And he’s also an author that mops up the loose ends of his story, rounding things up at the very end so we find out what happened to all of the characters after the mystery was solved (well, all except one!)

British Library Publishing have done us some huge favours by creating a wonderful collection of classic crime stories which would otherwise have languished in obscurity; and George Bellairs is one of many authors I’m glad has been rediscovered. “Dumb River” is another excellent entry in the Crime Classics list, and comes highly recommended from the Ramblings! 😀

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