The Case of the Headless Jesuit by George Bellairs

Jesuit2As the time strikes midnight and the New Year is rung in Granville Salter stumbles into the church of St. Mark’s, apparently drunk. When he collapses it is discovered that the man has been murdered having been stabbed in the chest with what seems to have been a German prisoner’s knife.

When Inspector Littlejohn arrives he learns that Salter was not the only local to have mysteriously died and also absorbs a little of the local lore. There are two legends that will play a role in this case. The first is that of a ghost that is said to haunt the area – the titular Jesuit. The second relates to a supposed treasure that is hidden somewhere around the Salter family’s ancestral home.

I have now read several Bellairs novels and I keep waiting to find the knockout read I feel sure the author was capable of. The omens with this one seemed particularly promising from its striking title, suggestions of the supernatural and the attention-grabbing opening chapter. Would this be the novel that would make me fall in love with Bellairs?

There is certainly a lot to like here and I will say that I found the book to be a pretty enjoyable read. Let’s start with its most distinctive elements – the two local legends that are incorporated into this story. From my reading so far, this hardly seems typical of Bellairs’ usual style and I certainly do not think he extracts the gothic atmosphere from these elements that other writers may have achieved but I did respect that he manages to make these elements colorful, distinctive and genuinely important to the plot without overwhelming the rest of his narrative.

While the subject matter may seem unusual for Bellairs, I think this is yet another example of his playing with aspects of rural life. His interest is less in the content of the legend but the way it hangs over and becomes part of a small community’s identity. That it adds a little color and spice to the narrative is a bonus rather than its cause for existence and I can certainly respect that approach.

I also felt that the string of murders we see here are fairly interesting in that they clearly must be connected and yet it is hard to see how they could be given the very different lives of each of the victims. The solution to just what happened is interesting and quite powerful, yet I do think that the number of deaths in such a short book means that a few of the killings get far less focus than the others. I think the resolution justifies the more superficial treatment of a couple of deaths but I could certainly understand if some readers felt frustrated that they do not receive a little more attention in the narrative.

And then there’s the characterization which I think is among the best of the Bellairs novels I have read so far. He always seems to have a good handle on countryside types but what I think he shows in this novel is his ability to condense a characterization down into a pithy description. A good example would be the character of Mrs. Alverston who, we are told:

…had a thin, puffy face and the large appealing eyes of the persecuted. If life does not unduly persecute them, they persecute themselves.

Another character who is given a memorable, scandalous introduction is PC Pennyquick.

He had one secret sin. He loved, when alone, to drink with his mouth full. He liked to mix hot, sugared tea with his food.

There are a surprisingly large number of characters in what is quite a short book, yet I think even the most incidental characters feel memorable and distinctive which is quite an achievement.

Given all of these aspects of the book I appreciated and enjoyed, you may be wondering just why I am not being more enthusiastic about this story. The answer is that I think the investigation just feels flat and passive.

While I would never list Littlejohn amongst my favorite detectives from the Golden Age, I do appreciate that he typically adopts a fairly rigorous, methodical approach to investigating crimes. He does the same here, working as usual with the local police and yet here he never really seems to take charge of the investigation. The result is that the case feels unfocused and only really comes together in the final chapters once a third party comes to explain their actions.

We do learn in the aftermath of that moment that Littlejohn had successfully identified them and yet it is hard to extract much satisfaction from that seeing as how he never shares that information with the reader. Though I think the nature of that reveal plays into the themes of the novel and leads to a pretty striking coda scene, I found the journey to that point unsatisfying, not quite working as a detective story while not being thrilling enough to work as a thriller.

Unfortunately the result is a disappointing novel that has some great ideas and themes but never manages to balance them. It’s certainly very readable and entertaining in places but it is hard to overlook a weak investigative narrative.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: At least two deaths with different means (How)

This book was published in the United States as Death Brings In the New Year.

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