I had my first taste of George Bellairs last month when I wrote about Death of a Busybody, a novel that I felt had plenty of character but that the mystery was too simple to solve. While I felt a little underwhelmed, I could see some elements I liked and was keen to dive right back in and give him a second go. There are a lot of different Bellairs titles available so I selected one at random and hoped for the best.
The Case of the Demented Spiv is another outing from Inspector Littlejohn published some seven years (and eleven books) after Busybody. While its title is certainly striking, I must say that it doesn’t really reflect the body of the work. There is a spiv in the story but he only appears in the opening scenes and he barely figures in the rest of the story. Still, it led to me taking a closer look at the book so as a title I suppose it did its job.
The novel begins with the titular spiv running into a pub to let people know that he has found a body at a textiles factory and he repeatedly professes his innocence. The body is that of the factory’s manager and is found wearing theatrical paint. The local police seize on him as the most likely suspect however but before the case is brought to trial he hangs himself in his cell. Stuck, the local police call Scotland Yard who assign Littlejohn to the case and after he arrives and the question of his lodgings are settled (this seemingly is an important part of any Littlejohn investigation), he sets to work, listening to village gossip to help him understand the relationships between the various characters he meets.
Bellairs understands rural communities well and captures the strange power an employer can have over their local population. From the beginning of the novel we are led to understand that the Fenning family’s status causes others to alter the way they perceive and interact with them. For instance, we learn that the initial investigation was somewhat half-hearted because of the policeman’s ties to the family. This material is interesting and I felt gave the book some rich themes to explore.
While I think the book never really pulls off any surprises in its situations or characterizations, it executes its plot and character development well. The Fenning family are comprised of some interesting figures and I felt that Bellairs managed the revelations about them very well, slowly building up a clear image of them over the course of the book.
As a sleuth, Littlejohn is very practically minded and methodical and there is a hint of the plodder about him yet I enjoy the way he interacts with the locals, sometimes manipulating them a little while following a lead. Those easy interactions with the locals are one of the things that make him stand out most as a character.
This brings me to the case itself and here I have somewhat more mixed feelings. On the simplest level, I felt that this novel does not give itself away as badly as Death of a Busybody and I appreciated that the suspects are interesting. However, the nature of the crime feels a little more drab and commonplace while the origins of the most striking aspect of the death, the greasepaint makeup, are less interesting than you may assume. Still, the case builds at a good pace and does have some very satisfying moments in its conclusion though this is not the sort of puzzle mystery that a reader could figure out through ratiocination. Instead the reader should size the suspects up and deduce how the crime might have been achieved.
While The Case of the Demented Spiv is a flawed novel, I find it tidier and much more entertaining than my previous experience with Bellairs’ work and I find I am looking forward to trying other books in this series.