When I was making my plans for my week of festive reads I had not noticed that my 200th fiction review would be falling right in the middle of it. I only noticed a few days before and when I found that I wasn’t enjoying the book I had planned to review in this slot I decided to change things up and find something else that would not only fit the festive theme (as I happily learned from a review at Gaslight Crime) but also feel appropriate for a milestone post.
Over the past year I have returned time and again to the mystery novels of George Bellairs. Looking at the list of authors I have previously reviewed he comes second only to Freeman Wills Crofts which is remarkable given I was never really bowled over by any of his books. I always believed that, with patience, I would come across one of his books that would really hit the mark for me. I am very pleased to be able to report that The Dead Shall Be Raised proved I was right to keep that faith.
This novel was one of the earliest Bellairs wrote, being published in 1942 and it was recently reissued by the British Library in a double-bill with The Murder of a Quack. It is notable for several reasons but the one that interests me most is that it is essentially a cold case story. Littlejohn happens to be in the area visiting his wife for Christmas when a body is discovered of a man who disappeared over twenty years earlier having been believed to have murdered one of his colleagues in a dispute over a woman’s affections. Many of the original figures from that case have died or moved away leaving the Inspector with limited leads to follow.
Bellairs presents us with a situation that feels much more complex and mysterious than any I have encountered in his other stories to date. The crime scene itself is inherently confusing as it is hard to understand why the two bodies, apparently linked in death, were treated differently with just one being buried. As Littlejohn interviews the surviving witnesses and family members he learns more about the two victims and their relationship, identifying several suspects into the bargain.
I have written before about how well Bellairs conjures up a sense of the countryside in his work and I can only reiterate that opinion here. He not only gives a strong impression of the rugged landscape but the people who inhabit the town of Hatterworth feel real and well-observed. They respond to Littlejohn’s presence quite differently, some being excited or drawn to him because of the idea of an important detective taking an interest in their lives, others feeling he is an outsider whose efforts are likely to cause more trouble than good. They feel like a real community and while we only get to know a few characters very well, it adds credibility to the setting and situation.
It turns out that Bellairs is not only good at giving a sense of place, his writing conveys a sense of the time in which this book is written. This book is set in 1941, a year before publication, and there are parts of this story that strongly give a sense of the wartime experience. For instance, the book opens with a wonderful sequence in which we see Littlejohn having to travel by night which means trying to navigate an unfamiliar area with so little light that you cannot see the person sat next to you in a car. Bellairs not only tells you what they had to do, he gives you a sense of how it felt and I found it to be a really compelling opening to the novel.
Littlejohn is a practical, methodical detective whose approach to a case focuses on establishing and corroborating simple details. This means that many of the key points of the story seem to be slowly teased out or come into focus rather than being revealed in a sudden twist or development. Where this story differs from some of the later Bellairs novels I have read is that the reader also has to consider the mechanics of the crime much more than usual, only serving to complicate the eventual solution.
One other aspect of this book that stood out for me was that Bellairs reveals the killer’s identity far earlier than is usual in his work. Heading into the final chapters we are aware of who was responsible for carrying out the crime but we have not seen how it was done or exactly why and so these questions, rather than that of the killer’s identity, come to dominate the book’s conclusion. It makes for a nice change and I am really happy to be able to say the clues are fairly placed throughout the story and the solution fits the facts well.
The only disappointments for me were that Littlejohn’s wife who is supposedly his reason for visiting really doesn’t feature much in the story making you wonder if her inclusion was necessary at all while that the ending feels a little too easy for Littlejohn and certainly too tidy. Given the quality of the puzzle up to that point, the resolution feels like an afterthought and not quite earned by the investigator’s efforts up until that point.
Happily I found the journey to that point to be both interesting and entertaining. This book is not just a good character study or travelogue but a fascinating case with some solid complications, interesting investigative techniques and a very clever solution. It is easily the best Bellairs I have read so far and falls into that category of mysteries set at Christmas you can really read the whole year round. Highly recommended.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: During a Recognized Holiday (When)
The Dead Shall Be Raised was reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics range in a double-bill omnibus edition with The Murder of a Quack. It was published in the United States as Murder Will Speak (both titles are excellent).