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Mysterious Happenings on the South Downs

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The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts

The British Library Crime Classics series tends to get a lot of love on the blogs I visit – as well as on my own, as you’ll note from my many posts on them – and one particular title that’s been turning up lately is “The Hog’s Back Mystery”. Fortunately, I had a copy lurking, picked up at some point in a charity shop, and I must admit the thought of another relaxing mystery was just what I needed on my return to work after the summer break.

Freeman Wills Crofts is not a name new to me; back in the 1980s when I first had my Golden Age crime splurge and read more books by classic authors than I can remember, he was one of those whose works I tracked down. His Inspector French stories were hugely popular when they came out, and were still highly regarded among aficionados when I was reading him, so I wasn’t sure why his titles had slipped out of sight – and as I couldn’t remember anything about the Crofts titles I’d read I came to this completely fresh!

The book is set in the Surrey countryside, an area apparently well known to Crofts, and it deals with a sequence of mysterious disappearances. Dr James Earle and his wife Julia live in a comfortable country house, with no apparent worries. Julia’s sister and an older friend are visiting when Dr Earle suddenly vanishes from his house, in his carpet slippers and taking nothing with him. There is no evidence of foul play and no explanation, and the police are baffled. Fortunately, the local men are able to call in Inspector French, who proceeds along his methodical way, asking questions, looking for clues and always making sure he gets his breakfast! Earle has been seen up in ‘Town’ with an unknown woman who, when eventually identified, proves to have also disappeared. Was there a romantic connection, as it seems the Earle marriage was perhaps developing cracks? However, when one of the house guests also vanishes, the plot really thickens. The motive for the disappearances is unclear, there are no bodies, anybody who might be suspicious has an alibi; and it will take all of French’s brain-bashing to get to the solution.

Well, I can see why “The Hog’s Back Mystery” has received so much praise: it’s an excellently constructed puzzle, full of twists and turns, and eminently readable. French himself falls into the category of detectives who succeed by sheer graft (much like John Bude’s Meredith who I wrote about recently). There is no flashy detecting, no dramatic set-piece denouement and no Holmes-like disguises and chicanery. Instead, French follows up every little clue, interviews people over and over again, as well as doing a remarkable amount of leg-work. However, he still manages to have those lightbulb moments (which surely every human being gets) when all of the pieces slot into place and it only takes a bit of research and careful checking to prove a theory.

Hog’s Back on the South Downs

Crofts as an author plays fair with the reader, so much so that when we reach the chapter with the solution, each deduction or fact has a page reference so that the reader can pop back and check this. I would think this is perhaps guaranteed to disgruntle the reader a little, as it kind of says that if they had been as astute as French they would have solved the mystery too – and I confess I didn’t! 🙂 I *did* work out something about a guilty party before it was revealed, but the intricacies of the alibis etc were beyond me, despite the clues – which isn’t a problem, as I *do* like to be fooled by a murder mystery!

So, yet another satisfying read from the British Library Crime Classics series. A couple of the early titles I read seemed perhaps a little lightweight but I must admit that the recent books I’ve read have been excellent examples of the genre. And of course, they’re perfect relaxing reading when your brain is a bit frazzled and you want to watch someone else doing all the hard work for you…. 🙂

*****

“Hog’s Back…” has also been loved and reviewed by BookerTalk and HeavenAli, and so you might want to pop over and have a look at their posts.

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Books. Tomes. Publications. Texts. And a marvellous festive treat from @BL_Publishing !

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It’s the usual story on the Ramblings: despite my best intentions, books *will* keep finding their way into the house… In fairness, I have bought very few of them, and I *have* piled on the floor in one of the Offspring’s ex-bedrooms at least 100 volumes to be sold or donated or passed on to friends. So the house rafters will hopefully survive for a little longer, and in the meantime I thought I should share some book pictures – because, let’s face it, we all get vicarious pleasure from seeing other people’s book hauls!

First up, the charity shops. I should just avoid them, I suppose, but *do* pop in every week – and mostly I’m good, reminding myself that I have plenty to read at home.

However, the previous weekend I couldn’t resist another Allingham (I kind of think I might have read this once, but I can’t remember) – it sounds good and was terribly cheap! The Capote short stories is a book I haven’t come across in my second-hand book searching, and I blame Ali – she’s reviewed Capote’s short stories glowingly, and although I’ve read his longer works I haven’t read this, so I had to pick it up.

The rather large volume that is “Middlemarch” is a Bookcrossing book – they have a little selection in my local Nero, and since I always have a coffee there on a Saturday I always check the books out. I have a very old and gnarled Penguin of the book, but the type is so small that it’s off-putting – so I figured this might spur me on to read it. It’s in almost new condition with decent size type and lovely white pages (as opposed to the brown and crispy ones of my old book) so that’s a bonus!

However, the bestest find (so to speak) of recent weeks is this lovely!! I’ve written about Anthony Berkeley’s works before on the blog – I love his Golden Age fictions, as he brings such a twist to the format, and in particular the British Library Crime Classics reprint of “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a really outstanding addition to their range. It seems the BL are not the only ones going in for classic crime reprints (although I would say they are leading the field), as this is a Collins reprint which seems to be part of a series of ‘Detective Club’ reissues. A lovely hardback in a dustjacket, for £2 not to be sneezed at. I can see myself picking this one up very soon!

Then there are the review books…. gulp. As you can see, a few have been making their way into the Ramblings – some rather substantial and imposing ones amongst them, particularly from the lovely OUP. The hardback Russians are calling to me, particularly “Crime and Punishment”, which is long overdue a re-read. Then there’s another edition of the quirky and entertaining Stella Benson from Mike Barker.

As for the Christmas paper… well, you’ve probably picked up on social media and the like that the British Library have a rather special volume planned as their Christmas Crime Classic this year, and this is what popped through my door, beautifully wrapped.

Early Christmas present – has to be good! This will be the 50th British Library Crime Classic, and it’s being released in a hardback with special extra material. Inside, it looks rather like this:

Isn’t it beautiful? The story itself sounds wonderful enough, but the book comes with an exclusive essay on the history of Christmas crime fiction, as well as an introduction, all by the marvellous Martin Edwards. And the book itself is beautifully produced, with the usual gorgeous cover image, plus a ribbon bookmark (I *love* books with a built in bookmark). What a treat! Part of me wants to devour it straight away, and part of me wants to wait until Christmas – what torture. Thank you, British Library!

So – some fascinating incoming books, I feel, and yet more difficult decisions to be made about what to read next. At least there’s not much risk of me running out of things to read…. 😉

Murder in the Sun

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Death on the Riviera by John Bude

Since this summer has been something of a washout, weather-wise (at least where I live, anyway), I was glad of the chance to escape to warmer climes recently; and in a bit of an uncertain state about what to read next I launched myself into this lovely volume from the British Library Crime Classics which I picked up on a jaunt to London over the summer. I’ve read and reviewed several of John Bude’s books on the Ramblings, and he’s definitely one of the successes of the BLCC range. His Inspector Meredith is a down-to-earth and appealing character, his mysteries are always set somewhere specific with a strong sense of place, and the plot is always solid and satisfying. And certainly the sunny south of France had a lot more going for it than soggy Suffolk at the end of August…

“Death on the Riviera”, first published in 1952, sees Inspector Meredith and his young sidekick, Acting Sergeant Freddy Strang, heading off to the south of France in pursuit of a criminal. Interestingly, it’s not a murderer they’re after but a counterfeiter, known as ‘Chalky’ Cobbett, and their visit is part of an international effort to track down forged money which is making the rounds. En route, they encounter Bill Dillon, also travelling south, though he is heading to the village of the ageing Nesta Hedderwick in pursuit of his absent wife Kitty. The villa is a centre for some decadent goings-on with a dodgy resident artist, a playboy who’s also keen on Kitty and various hangers-on. Nesta’s niece Dilys seems surprisingly normal, and it’s not long before the two worlds collide, Freddy falls for Dilys, and it seems that the villa may be more involved with the forgery scam than might have first appeared likely. However, this is no straightforward golden age mystery – it’s not revealing too much to say that murder doesn’t happen until well into the book – and it takes all of Meredith’s ingenuity to untangle the threads of the plot and sort out a solution.

I was reminded how much I enjoy Bude’s books as soon as I picked this one up, and it was one of those golden age mysteries you just don’t want to put down. The setting, both in place and time, was spot on; the south of France, with its rich and poor, trend setters and hangers-on, was very vivid, and the fact that the book was set so close, relatively speaking, to the end of WW2, added a little frisson. In fact, the opening of the story, when Bill Dillon is passing through customs at Dunkirk and casting his mind back to the last time he was there, is very atmospheric. Bude’s descriptions are often quite lovely, bringing to life the sun, the landscape and the area beautifully.

Monte Carlo in the 1950s

The plot itself is clever and complex, twisting and turning all over the place. Bude *does* pretty much play fair with the reader and I sussed one particular twist before the end although the specifics evaded me. And several other twists passed me by until they were resolved, if I’m honest. One of the joys of Meredith is that he usually gets his man (or woman) through sheer hard graft. No flights of fancy, but door-to-door questioning, going over and over the problem – and yes, I suppose in the end he *does* let his little grey cells eventually come to the right conclusion. But watching him going through the process is a delight, and the comical romantic misadventures of Strang were great fun too. The solution to the smuggling plot was very, very ingenious and having this run alongside the murder plot added an extra element.

Any misgivings? Not really – I would have liked a little more after-story about a couple of the characters; one in particular was left hanging in an uncomfortable situation at the end of the book and it would have been nice to find out what happened to her (and the other character associated with her). But apart from that, “Death on the Riviera” was the perfect, relaxing, end of summer read and at least I got transported to the sunny coast for a day or two – even if it was in the company of criminals! :))

Murder in Wartime

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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.

raised-quack

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!

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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!

Murder in the depths of winter

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Crimson Snow, edited by Martin Edwards

I really am getting into the groove with my Golden Age crime reading at the moment. It seems particularly suited to this time of year, and the new collection of short stories, “Crimson Snow”, is absolutely perfect, featuring as it does crimes that take place in the dead of winter! I’ve read a few of the BL short story collections which have all been fantastic, and this one is again in the more than capable editorial hands of Martin Edwards.

crimson-snow

“Crimson Snow” collects together 11 stories set in the middle of the coldest of the seasons, and of course the concept of a snowed in country house lends itself well to a murder mystery; in fact several of the stories do take place in that kind of setting, and some do have a hint of supernatural thrown in to add a frisson, even if that’s eventually debunked. The stories are presented chronologically, starting with Fergus Hulme’s “The Ghost’s Touch” and ending with Josephine Bell’s “Carol Singers”, and there are a wide variety of authors. Interestingly, the majority of the authors were ones I hadn’t read before so it was really good to be able to explore new writers. In fact, as far as I can recall I’ve only read Allingham before, so this was a real voyage of discovery!

When reviewing short stories I’m never quite sure how much detail to go into, so I think I’ll touch on favourites and give some general thoughts. “The Chopham Affair” by Edgar Wallace was very enjoyable – he was astonishingly prolific and although this is probably pulp, it was great fun. The Fergus Hulme had a bit of scariness thrown in, as did “Death in December” by Victor Gunn. This latter, one of the longer pieces, was very memorable; there was plenty of spookiness and wicked deeds, and Gunn’s regular detective, Chief Inspector “Ironsides” Cromwell, was great fun.

Another treat was in the form of “Mr. Cork’s Secret” by Macdonald Hastings. Cork is the head of Anchor Insurance company, and ends up spending his festive season investigating a murder and jewel theft at a luxury hotel. It’s a satisfying mystery which ends up with the reader being challenged to find out what Cork’s secret actually is – and the solution is given at the end. Margery Allingham’s “The Man with the Suit” is of course a standout, being a wonderful tale featuring Mr. Campion; it’s reproduced here in its original, longer form and has the classic, snowy country house setting. Campion himself is a joy and reading this made me even keener to revisit more of Allingham’s work.

snowy-house

Even the later stories could be described as Golden Age, except for one slightly anachronistic tale in the form of Bell’s “Carol Singers”. This brings us into the more modern world, closing the collection on a downbeat note and a leaving a slightly bitter taste. An old lady living on her own is preyed upon by young hoodlums, and it’s a sad story; although the guilty are tracked down, it still takes us away from the slightly less realistic atmosphere of GA crime.

So, another wonderful book from the British Library Crime Classics, and perfect for festive reading. I particular enjoyed getting to know some new authors, and I think I’ll definitely follow up some of the names featured here to see what else of theirs is available – always happy to find new writers to read! 🙂

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

A post-modern detective story?

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The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

I’ve often thought how rubbish I’d be on a jury, as whenever I’ve watched fictional court scenes I’ve been swayed back and forth by the arguments of the opposing counsels until I don’t know who to believe. And I’m even more convinced having read Anthony Berkeley’s “The Poisoned Chocolates Case”, a recent addition to the very wonderful British Library Crime Classics series.

poisoned-chocolates

Berkeley is a most unjustly neglected author, as my experiences of reading his work have been wonderful. Under this pseudonym (his real one was Anthony Berkeley Cox) he created the detective Roger Sheringham, a most entertaining sleuth. Another nom de plume was Francis Iles, and under this one he produced the very highly regarded “Malice Aforethought”. Iles was later reinvented as a critic; this book, however, is his most famous one as Berkeley, and it’s really very special – certainly one of the BL titles I was most keen to read.

As usual, the book features an excellent introduction by the redoubtable Martin Edwards, giving an outline of Berkeley’s career. And the story itself is a fascinating read, and a most unusual one. Roger Sheringham has set up a Crimes Circle, a group of notables with an interest in crime and criminals – and most obviously this is a tongue-in-cheek parody of the Detection Club, which Berkeley was instrumental in forming. There is the famous barrister Sir Charles Wildman; dramatist Miss Fielder-Flemming; novelist Alicia Dammers; crime fiction author Morton Harrogate Bradley; and Mr. Ambrose Chitterwick, a diffident man about whom little is said.. On the evening in question, as the book opens, they are joined by Chief Inspector Moresby of Scotland Yard, a friend of Sheringham, as the latter, being the Circle’s president, has a proposal to put to the members.

A murder has taken place, that of Joan Bendix, who’s been poisoned by a doctored box of chocolates. The twist is that the sweets in question had been sent to one Sir Eustace Pennefather at his club, purporting to be a free sample from the company that produces them. Pennefather dismisses the promotional stunt angrily; and as Graham Bendix, who happens to be nearby, mentions that he owes his wife Joan a box of chocolates after losing a bet, Pennefather gladly hands them on to him. The chocolates are duly delivered to Mrs. Bendix, who reports that they taste rather unpleasant; Graham Bendix tries a couple and agrees, and so when the poison takes hold it only makes him ill as he ate so few; for Joan Bendix, who ate a good number, it proves fatal.

This is the pretty and knotty problem facing the Crime Circle; who tried to kill Sir Eustace and why? There are few clues, as the box was posted on evening in the middle of London, and there are no fingerprints on the wrapping or anything else to give a hint as to the killer. Scotland Yard are baffled and so Roger Sheringham proposes that each member does a little sleuthing, presenting their findings at later meetings to see if the amateurs can outdo the professionals. Of course, Sheringham himself wants to be the one who finds the solution and we do see some of the detecting from his point of view.

So the various members go off to do their investigating; and what’s fascinating is how each turns out to have some individual knowledge of the people involved in the murder. Sir Charles, for example, has a hatred of Pennefather, who is revealed to be something of a womanizer and who’s been chasing his daughter with a view to marriage for money. Several members know the Bendixes, and reports of the temperament of Joan, the happiness or not of their marriage and each partner’s peccadilloes vary. As I read on, each subsequent explanation was totally convincing, proving how easy it is to twist facts to meet theories – I ended up really not knowing who was the guilty party! It’s a tribute to Berkeley’s skill as an author that each individual explanation has a completely different angle and interpretation of the characters and events, and that each is utterly believable.

Facts were very dear to Sir Charles. More, they were meat and drink to him. His income of roughly thirty thousand pounds a year was derived entirely from the masterful way in which he was able to handle facts. There was no one at the bar who could so convincingly distort an honest but awkward fact into carrying an entirely different interpretation from that which any ordinary person (counsel for the prosecution, for instance) would have put upon it. He could take that fact, look it boldly in the face, twist it round, read a message from the back of its neck, turn it inside out and detect auguries in its entrails, dance triumphantly on its corpse, pulverise it completely, re-mould it if necessary into an utterly different shape, and finally, if the fact still had the temerity to retain any vestige of its primary aspect, bellow at it in the most terrifying manner. If that failed he was quite prepared to weep at it in open court.

This book really could be described as post-modern in that it actually deconstructs many of the tropes and conventions of detective stories. The Circle members are quite happy to discuss the tricks that authors use to bamboozle the reader, and how easy it is to draw erroneous conclusions and make a convincing argument for almost anyone being the murderer! Berkeley playfully pokes fun at the genre, but always in an affectionate way and this doesn’t interfere with the joy of following the mystery and the deduction; it’s also very funny! And the book finishes in a wonderfully open-ended way, with the reader pretty much free to agree with any of the conclusions reached or none of them.

berkeley

“The Poisoned Chocolates Case” comes with some excellent extras in the form of an additional chapter with a solution by noted author Christianna Brand, first published in 1977; and a rather wonderful subsequent one by Martin Edwards, written especially for this edition. I didn’t think Brand’s piece gelled particularly well, but that by Edwards was just wonderful. He captures brilliantly Berkeley’s style and his solution is ingenious and believable with a marvellous twist on the last page – so make sure you don’t read that by mistake!

I have to say that the British Library Crime Classics are one of the joys of the modern publishing world; I love Golden Age crime anyway, and reading these rediscovered classics is such a pleasure. “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” is definitely going to be up there among my favourites of genre; it’s perfect reading for those who just want a brilliant Golden Age read, or for those who want something that delves a little into the whole business of classic crime writing. Highly recommended!

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

Darkness beneath the surface of village life…

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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!

Another gorgeous cover from the BL!

Another gorgeous cover from the BL!

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.

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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!

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