A little while ago I made a list of how often I had reviewed works by particular authors and I was surprised to see that George Bellairs had come in second place. While nearly half a year has passed since I read anything by him, I have been looking for an opportunity to return to his work and when I saw that Agora were planning to reissue this one I couldn’t resist requesting a review copy.
Inspector Littlejohn is asked to investigate the death of Harry Dodd, a man who was discovered stabbed in the back when apparently on his way back from the pub. It turns out that Harry’s brother is a Member of Parliament with ambitions for very high office and while the crime itself seems like the sort the local police might handle, he desires for it to generate as little scandal as possible.
When Littlejohn arrives in the village he learns more about Harry’s somewhat unusual living arrangements. It turns out that he had a one-night stand with his typist that had been discovered and he had been divorced and given a payoff to leave his position with the family business. While he had no feelings for the woman, he decided to stand by her and acquired a cottage where he lived with her and her mother, making her a regular allowance.
Initially it is hard to understand why Harry might have been a target for murder but Littlejohn, in pursuing a few loose ends, uncovers more about his life which considerably broadens the scope of the investigation. What follows is a story that feels more procedural as we try to sort out the nature of relationships and understand how the various plot threads connect to each other.
I have often remarked on how one of Bellairs’ greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to create credible characters. This skill is once again clearly in evidence here not only in the array of suspects he presents us with but in the character of the victim himself who really looms over this whole narrative.
Harry Dodd is not a character who gets murdered and then fades into the background. He is clearly an eccentric but also deeply complex man. At first I was a little skeptical about the way that he had been imagined here, finding some contradictions in how he was being presented. I soon realized that these were entirely intentional and that a significant part of the story would deal with resolving these different images of Harry to understand exactly who he was and what his values were.
That journey was, for me, a deeply satisfying one, revealing him to be a complex and layered figure. In her review (linked below), Kate at CrossExaminingCrime remarks on how complicated a portrayal it is of a man who has been unfaithful to his wife. While I would point out that Bellairs is not necessarily flattering in the way he depicts Dorothy Nicholls or her mother, I agree that it is far more candid and clear in its discussion of these issues than I might have expected (though he uses the phrase Menage a Trois in a way I have not encountered before which caused a little confusion on this reader’s part at first!).
The cast of characters that Bellairs creates to be suspects and witnesses are just as memorable and come from an interesting mix of social classes and professions. Each feel well observed, particularly Dodd’s politician brother who as a socialist is embarrassed by his family’s links to industry and marriage into one of the county’s oldest families.
Bellairs develops his story well and there are a number of interesting and unexpected twists, even if I felt that the guilty party was clear long before any evidence turned up to link them to the crime. Part of the reason for that is because the narrative is complex with a relatively large cast of characters and a winding focus, there are relatively few figures who are around long enough to be truly credible. For that reason I think it’s helpful to think of this as a procedural – the destination is no more important than the journey to get to that point. Thankfully that journey turns out to be a fascinating one.
There are perhaps one or two too many murders, leading to a few feeling rushed and overshadowed by the more important ones. Still, they do at least contribute to the main thrust of the narrative and one does spin the story off in a really interesting new direction.
I also felt a little frustrated that a few characters’ fates are essentially left unresolved with them disappearing from the narrative after a while. I could understand why this would be desirable given they had no direct role to play in the case as it changed but it would have been nice to have at least a little information about what happened to them.
On the other hand, I think the ending packs some real emotional resonance and I was pleased to find that a few things I felt were sure to be loose ends were wrapped up more tidily than I could have hoped. It made for a very satisfying conclusion to what I would regard as one of the best novels I have read by Bellairs, sitting comfortably alongside The Dead Shall Be Raised (this is the more interesting case, that had the more interesting setting).
A copy was provided by the publisher, Agora Books, for review.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Means of murder in the title (What)
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime liked the book a lot saying that the mystery becomes “bigger and more intricate than you expect”. She also praises the complex depiction of Harry Dodd.
Rekha @ The Book Decoder was also full of praise for this book saying that the “the quirk factor and the humor was at an all-time high”.