If you are a seasoned reader of this blog I know what you’re wondering: why is Aidan trying another Bellairs when he’s read four of them already and has yet to be blown away by any of them? It’s a fair question but the reason is that, even in the weakest of his efforts, I find aspects of the writing enjoyable and I feel sure that there must be one of his novels where everything I like comes together to deliver a perfect mystery.
Well, if there is a perfect Bellairs out there it turns out that I will have to look a little more to find it but Toll the Bell for Murder is the closest thing yet, albeit with some reservations. Like my previous favorite, Corpse at the Carnival, Littlejohn is on the Isle of Man at his friend Archdeacon Kinrade’s request to unofficially look into a curious murder that seems to have been committed by a priest on the island.
The novel opens with a group of villagers preparing for a jumble sale by pricing donated items. Among those items is a shotgun and a box of ammunition which the vicar diligently sets to making sure is in working condition and pricing. In the early hours of the morning there is a loud shot in the vicinity of the church and a few minutes later the vicar begins violently ringing the church bell. When the villagers stumble up to the church they discover Reverend Lee praying over a body shot in the head. That shotgun lies next to him and he refuses to say anything in his defence. While no one really believes Lee would resort to murder, his unwillingness to cooperate means the investigation has hit a dead-end.
The victim, it turns out, is Sir Martin Skollick who is widely regarded as a bit of a scoundrel. An arrival from England, he has not only entered into land disputes with many of the locals but also seduced several of the young women in the neighborhood. Littlejohn soon realizes that there were plenty who would want him dead but first he will have to find a way to prove Lee’s innocence and discover what really happened that night.
Littlejohn sets about speaking with the locals to get a sense of the people involved and to learn more about the victim. These interviews are often somewhat rambling making progress in that investigation slow but they help establish the sense of place which I think is Bellairs’ greatest strength as a writer. Each of his characters feels distinctive, both in their personalities and in the way they talk, and I had no difficulty imagining any of them.
Similarly Bellairs pays a lot of attention to describing the landscape of the Manx curraghs and the isolation of some of the communities there. This style can occasionally feel a little travelogue-y, as TomCat said in the comments of a previous post, so if you’ve tried previous stories by the author and didn’t care for the focus drifting away from the crime narrative then this is probably not the book for you.
I don’t want to give the suggestion however that the murder is in any way an afterthought. Bellairs does take a lot of time to build up several suspects, crafting credible motivations for each of them. Unlike in some of the previous Littlejohn stories I have read, the suspect pool remains pretty much intact until the end.
Unfortunately the process of getting to the point where Littlejohn Explains It All is a little less satisfactory. Here we risk getting into spoiler territory in a big way so, being as general as I can be, I think there are two basic issues that impinged on my enjoyment of the ending. The first is that a typical beat of the normal detective novel resolution does not occur in its usual fashion. Now, I am the first to appreciate attempts to innovate or play with expectations but unfortunately I think it makes the conclusion feel a little less satisfying.
The second issue relates to the evidence Littlejohn gathers and uses when explaining everything at the end. While I certainly understand how he is able to use the things he learns to back up his reading of what happened, I am not sure that he really proves his case through the evidence. That may not bother everyone but coupled with the first issue it does mean that the ending feels a little anticlimactic.
Toll the Bell for Murder will not be for everyone. It is quite leisurely paced and some will be frustrated by the focus drifting away from the investigation. That said, I found it to be a more interesting book than any of the previous Bellairs titles I have read and it renews my hope that there will be a book where he knocks it out of the park. I just potentially will have to dig through another 56 books to find it…
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: On an Island (Where)