Death Spins the Wheel is the seventh Inspector Littlejohn novel I have read and while I typically find them to be light and diverting reads, I would not label any of the previous books I read as great detective stories. The closest I have come is Calamity at Harwood but that plays out more like a thriller with very little deduction taking place. This is a more traditional detective story, spinning a story with an interesting wartime background and some very solid puzzle elements to good effect.
Death Spins the Wheel begins with the death of an elderly French woman who has arrived on the Isle of Man to gamble at the Casino. The employees are surprised to see that she is working a system and that she is reliably successful, winning some tidy sums at roulette before walking away from the tables.
She is discovered dead on the beach in the evening having been shot with a small handgun. She does not seem to be killed for her money as her winnings are still present while the only other French visitors or residents are all accounted for leaving the police stumped as to who would have wanted her dead.
Adding to the confusion, a woman reports that a Frenchman was found injured in the road in the early hours of the morning. He appeared to have suffered a heart attack but did not want medical assistance and disappeared when one of the people helping him went to summon help.
Inspector Littlejohn, who appears to have learned nothing from each of his previous attempts to take a holiday on the island, finds that his stay is interrupted with a request from the local police to lend his services to their investigation. He is happy enough to agree and before long will find himself travelling to France and Switzerland to look into the matter along with his old friend the archdeacon to look into the woman’s background.
Before I get into the case I would like to take a moment to reflect on the setup for the case. This novel was published in 1965, just a few years after the first legal casinos opened within the UK, and there is clearly an element of novelty in the setting. We are reminded through the comments of the Archdeacon’s housekeeper that this was still a pretty controversial development at the time and the author does have to explain, albeit very simply, that visitors had to apply for a short-term membership to play in the games.
One question that seems important at the start of the novel although it is quickly superseded by other developments in the investigation is whether our elderly gambler really did have a system or if she was just lucky. The answer is, in this reader’s opinion, sadly quite ridiculous and I can only be thankful that we move past it into more intriguing ground.
The events of this novel are grounded in events from the past and it is this aspect of the book that I think is most successful. Here we see Littlejohn and the Archdeacon trying to make sense of sometimes conflicting accounts about scandals that some would prefer to remain kept covered up and while I have seen many of the ideas here used elsewhere, I think that Bellairs uses them to create intriguing motivations for several of his suspects.
I doubt that many readers will be seriously puzzled by the killer’s identity though their motivation for carrying out the deed may require a little more work to figure out. Even if you do figure out the puzzle, I think the book works on a simple, thematic level to tell an engaging story that draws upon the European war experience.
There are also some moments that I think will please those who have regularly dipped into these stories such as the Archdeacon’s active involvement in trying to solve this mystery. In fact there are a few points in this story where he is more active than Littlejohn and certainly asking more questions. I also appreciated that this story takes in Bellairs’ two favorite locales of the Isle of Man and France within a single novel and I certainly appreciated our sleuths’ movement within the story as they hope from locale to locale trying to build up a picture of Madame Garnier’s life.
I would consider this one of the strongest Bellairs novels I have read so far, although I still think the mystery is a little slight and reiterate my distaste for the explanation as to how Madame Garnier wins at the tables. In spite of those grumbles, I found it to be an entertaining and quick read and I did enjoy the way the tale draws on what was then recent European history as background for the case.
Review copy provided by the publisher.