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Devious dealings and double lives! #georgebellairs @BL_publishing @medwardsbooks

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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!)

New Town antics in a world on the cusp of change @Medwardsbooks @BL_Publishing #georgebellairs

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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!

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.

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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!

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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