It is 1938 and property developer Solomon Burt’s car happens to break down on the road between London and Brighton. He is initially frustrated at an unexpected delay until he sees a stately home in a very promising setting. After making enquiries, he sees the opportunity to snap up the property by purchasing and calling in the landowner’s loans and goes about dividing the home up into luxury flats.
Several years later the redevelopment is finished and the flats are being let but during the building the contractors had complained that it was haunted. Among the signs were strange noises being heard and items being moved around. When the new residents witness similar events several are spooked and look to terminate their leases early.
Then one night Burt is seen being dunked in the pond, supposedly by those ghosts, before being thrown to his death from the top of the staircase a short while later. The staircase was observed by multiple witnesses within moments of the death, all of whom insist that none of the residents could have been placed to commit the murder. While this seems to tie in with the idea of a haunting, Littlejohn is certain that Burt was killed by someone living and sets about to prove it.
While this may sound like Bellairs is entering impossible crime territory, I would caution that this novel really doesn’t read that way. The author certainly gives little attention to exploring the sequence of events that led to Burt’s death preferring to spend time asking how and why it has been made to seem as though Harwood is haunted and the motives for the murder. As puzzles go, this is certainly the most interesting one I have seen so far from Bellairs and I enjoyed discovering just how these events fitted together.
Bellairs creates a curious mix of residents to populate these flats including and Austrian archaeologist and his two strapping assistants, an actress, a playwright, an American couple and a pair of elderly sisters, one of whom is completely deaf. These characters feel appropriately distinctive and, unlike in the other Bellairs novels I have read, seem surprisingly cosmopolitan as all of them are newly settled in the countryside.
While this sounds like a promising array of suspects, I would once again offer a small caution that Bellairs deviates from some of the structure and beats of the traditional whodunit, opting instead to develop his story as more of a thriller or adventure. There are clues present and the attentive reader can certainly beat Littlejohn to discovering what is going on, but we soon move beyond questions of alibi into simply trying to understand how each of the facts we have connect. I do think there is some stronger plotting on show here than I am used to with Bellairs’ work and while there are some familiar ideas on display from other books and works of the period, I think he stitches these together into a pretty entertaining narrative.
Littlejohn is on decent form, though he exhibits a little less personality than in some of his later appearances. There is an interesting moment late in the novel where he takes an action with little thought for the way it will affect the person he’s speaking to that feels curiously unresolved and incomplete. This struck me as a missed opportunity to have the character perform some reflection but it goes completely without notice which is a shame.
Littlejohn does spend quite a lot of time bossing his deputy Cromwell around who was a character I believe I was encountering for the first time here. A few of those requests did seem to venture way across a line, such as ordering him to draw up a bath for him and stand in the room as he washed himself so they could talk over the case. Cromwell is quite competent though and does make some solid contributions to this case – I do think Littlejohn benefits from the companionship and having a sounding board to bounce ideas off here.
Though Calamity at Harwood is not the best example of a traditional detective story because of some aspects of its storytelling that emphasize moments of revelation over deduction, I do think it is a very competent thriller and builds to a solid and entertaining conclusion. I was particularly drawn to the strangeness of the circumstances of the death and found getting the answers to what had happened to be really quite satisfying and interesting.
Is it that knockout Bellairs read I keep searching for? Not quite, but if the premise sounds promising or you like works set on the home front during World War II this may appeal. It certainly feels a lot closer to that ideal than most of the others I have read so far. If you do plan on reading it though I would suggest skipping reading the blurbs however on print and e-book copies as they do give away a substantial detail that is only revealed late in the novel.