Originally Published 1964
Inspector Littlejohn #41
Preceded by Death of a Shadow
Followed by Death Spins the Wheel
The offices of the Excelsior Joinery Company have been blown to smithereens; three of the company directors are found dead amongst the rubble, and the peace of a quiet town in Surrey lies in ruins. When the supposed cause of an ignited gas leak is dismissed and the presence of dynamite revealed, Superintendent Littlejohn of Scotland Yard is summoned to the scene.
But beneath the sleepy veneer of Evingden lies a hotbed of deep-rooted grievances. The new subject of the town’s talk, Littlejohn’s investigation is soon confounded by an impressive cast of suspicious persons, each concealing their own axe to grind.
This novel opens with a literal bang as an explosion occurs in the offices of the Excelsior Company, killing three members of its board who were having a late night meeting inside. When it is discovered that dynamite was to blame so assuming foul play, the local police send for help to the Yard.
Littlejohn and Cromwell are dispatched and quickly set about interviewing the two surviving board members, several employees of the company and the bank to learn more about the situation. They discover that the Excelsior Company had run close to bankruptcy for several years and the directors were personally liable for far more than they could afford to repay. As is remarked at one point, the company is the sort of place you wouldn’t even accept as a gift, let alone buying it, so Littlejohn is puzzled when he finds the charred remains of a paper referring to a takeover offer in the debris.
In addition to the company’s financial problems, Littlejohn uncovers infidelities and resentments, with one of the dead directors, John Dodd, at the center of all of them. With a large number of suspects to consider, Littlejohn must try to understand who or what the intended target was, how the weapon was procured and the motive behind the attack.
Bellairs’ novel is told in the procedural style as we follow each stage of the thorough and methodical investigation. The case is rather detailed and given that several possible explanations for the crime involve a financial angle, we spend quite a bit of time with the Yard’s fraud department trying to understand the company’s position.
These sections of the book clearly make considerable use of the author’s own knowledge and experience from his work as a bank manager. While this is a positive from the point of view of the novel’s credibility, I suspect that these chapters may feel a little dry and detailed to readers whose interests lie outside of balance sheets and financial projections. They are necessary though to understand the novel’s plot and I think Bellairs does a good job of making a complex topic accessible to readers who may have little knowledge of the business world.
As indicated in the novel’s title, Bellairs does give us a wide cast of characters to consider as suspects. This reflects the uncertainty about who the intended victim was, particularly early in the book.
Though there are three victims who die in the explosion, we quickly come to focus on one of them – John Dodd – who we learn may have been a bit of a charming rogue. This is not the first Dodd we have met of that type in Bellairs’ work (A Knife for Harry Dodd) which leads me to wonder what the author had against this particular surname. The Dodd in this story is perhaps a little less colorful than his counterpart in that book but I still enjoyed learning more about him and the way he had been operating the Excelsior Company.
One of the problems with establishing a larger cast of suspects is that many of the characters are not really given the time to make much of an impression on the reader. Few really establish themselves as personalities and while I remember that there were a large cast of possibilities, I would have to think hard to remember exactly who most of them were.
The actual villain of the piece stands out as being a bit of an exception to this but of course that isn’t necessarily a positive as the thinner characterizations elsewhere means that there are few credible alternatives. Their motive for murder is at least pretty strong and was, for me, the most compelling part of the story.
There are also issues in the choice of weapon used. While the explosion makes for a strong hook to the story, the lack of dynamite on site means that we have to spend quite a while working out how it was acquired and why that was the method used. These questions are not uninteresting but I do feel that some of the space used would have been better spent on fleshing out the other suspects a little more.
In his introduction to this book Martin Edwards makes mention that by the time this book was written its style would have been considered a little old-fashioned. This is certainly the case in terms of the style and structure Bellairs employs and I was a little surprised to realize that the action was meant to be taking place in 1964. The Sixties were certainly not swinging in the new town of Evingden.
There are some signs of the commercial changes that were beginning to take place in this period, not only in the problems that the Excelsior Company faced but also in the way the town is being redeveloped. It may only be a small part of this story but I think Bellairs handles this well, depicting it quite simply as a change that is taking place rather than offering any particular take or opinion on them.
I have now read quite a few of Bellairs’ novels and I would consider this to be a lesser work though it is still quite readable. The puzzle aspect of the novel is quite serviceable and I think the financial aspects of this story are well handled, even if they won’t have the broadest appeal. The novel’s title points to its greatest problem – with so many suspects, few are established well enough to be taken seriously and neither the questions of how or why are interesting enough to make up for this.
The Verdict: Definitely a lesser work in the Littlejohn series but with a few points of interest that make it worth a look.
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime enjoyed it more than she expected and appreciated some of the comedic notes.
Rekha @ The Book Decoder comments that while she enjoyed it, Surfeit of Suspects felt a little slow in the banking scenes and is not on the level of some of Littlejohn’s earlier cases.