I had mixed reactions to the first two George Bellairs novels that I read but though I had problems with both books, I could see elements of his work that I liked a lot and so I have been keen to try some other entries in the series. Happily I can report that Corpse at the Carnival was a much stronger effort.
The novel begins with an older man walking along a pier, gazing out to sea and quietly dying. It seems almost peaceful which makes it all the stranger when a knife wound is discovered in his back. When the Police begin their investigations they find that their first challenge will be finding out just who he was as he only seems to be known locally as Uncle Fred.
Chief Inspector Littlejohn happens to be in the area, having visited the Isle of Man to stay with his friend the archdeacon. Though he is supposed to be relaxing he agrees to assist the Police investigation and sets about tackling the mystery of who Uncle Fred really was and why he has been murdered.
Having now read three Bellairs novels I am really starting to appreciate his ability to give a sense of what it is like to live in different parts of the British countryside. The differences between city and country lifestyles is an important theme to this novel and I felt he does a good job of making the Manx setting feel distinctive both in terms of its geography and in the personalities of the people Littlejohn interacts with.
As with The Case of the Demented Spiv, the story unfolds at a somewhat leisurely pace and I would say that understanding the personalities of the various characters is more important to solving the case than details of the mechanics of the crime. We have quite a large cast of characters for this length of book as we get to meet the various tenants and staff of the boarding house in which he lived as well, some people he knows on the island as some other figures from his past. I felt that they were generally very well drawn and appreciated that they were generally more than just types, even those who initially seem to have quite simple roles to play.
Before any of these characters can really emerge as a suspect however we need to get to know Uncle Fred, discover his real name and his personality. The character emerges as a surprisingly complex figure in the course of the novel, possessing some admirable qualities and also some that reflect less well on him. I found that by the end of the novel I was not entirely sure how I felt about him. I consider that to be the mark of a rich, strongly developed character and I found the ambiguity to be quite intriguing.
The other characters benefit from this strong central figure, being able to play off some of the ambiguities in the man. The nature of some of those relationships is as guarded as that of Uncle Fred’s true identity and I appreciated the way the novel allows us to slowly build up a picture of his life rather than have us encounter significant clues. This is a slow paced, leisurely investigation of a man’s life which perfectly matches the novel’s themes but with little time for ratiocination.
These supporting characters do not exist merely to simply to serve the plot or to add to our confusion about the mystery but several are used to support the broader themes of the novel and possess interesting backstories of their own. This helped make this a far richer reading experience than either of the other two Bellair novels I have read to date but it does result in an investigation that sometimes feels a little unfocused and haphazard.
While Littlejohn is able to pull a lot of information together in the end in a credible way, there are unfortunately a few elements of the story that seem to get left unresolved. For instance, there is a question about how a sum of money will be dealt with that seems to be forgotten in the final chapters. I did appreciate however that Bellairs tells us in closing how the different characters’ lives progressed after this investigation was finished.
I was also a little struck by the character’s development at this point. The previous titles I have read were penned much earlier and by this point he has risen in the ranks to Chief Inspector. There is a rather melancholic passage early on where he reflects on how all of his counterparts are gone having either retired or died in the line of duty and at points he is reflecting on how all of the younger detectives he met at his conference seemed to think of him and his lack of a method as archaic. Given this was published in 1958, it seems quite possible this was Bellairs reflecting on readers’ changing tastes in mystery fiction.
Somehow Corpse at the Carnival manages to both celebrate rural traditions and values and yet also feels like it is touching on some countercultural themes and ideas that I associate more with the 1960s. Unfortunately there are a few spots in the novel where its year of publication becomes all too apparent. One that particularly stood out to me comes when a woman suggests that it would have been to another woman’s benefit to have been struck a little by her husband. She believes this would have helped to remove some of the woman’s airs and graces, making their marriage a happier one. On a similar note, Bellairs uses a few racial terms and expressions that are unlikely to sit well with modern readers.
You may have noticed that in all I have written, I have not really commented on the mystery of the murder. This is partly to avoid giving unintended spoilers but it mostly reflects that the resolution to this mystery is likely to underwhelm those looking for a puzzle that you can work through. There is no aha moment where it all comes together, no dramatic revelation that the reader will have that changes the complexion of the case. Instead the reader will likely find that their instincts pull them towards suspecting a particular character based on our knowledge of their character and those of others. I will say though that I did appreciate the emotional notes hit in the somewhat unorthodox resolution.
The result is a story that I found more interesting on a social and character level than in terms of its investigation. I liked it a lot and found it to be a very satisfying and engaging read but I suspect for many mystery readers it is unlikely to hit the spot.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Title contains two words starting with the same letter (What)