Death in Dark Glasses by George Bellairs
Originally Published 1952
Inspector Littlejohn #19
Preceded by Death March for Penelope Blow
Followed by Half-Mast for the Deemster
It was meant to be a fool-proof scheme. The victim was a recluse, cut off from the world after the death of his wife. Nobody would think it strange when they didn’t see him. Nobody would make enquiries.Yet even the most meticulous of criminals can be caught out, especially if they don’t leave room for human error.
When a runaway bank clerk sets of a chain of investigation that grows to overwhelming proportions, Littlejohn is called in to handle the situation and the death of Finloe Oates is uncovered.
Murder, impersonation, disappearance, forgery, and embezzlement. Drawn into the bizarre world of the reclusive Finloe, Littlejohn and Cromwell find themselves with more than one mystery to unravel – but will they be able to find the elusive killer?
This solid procedural has an interesting starting point but the ending packs no surprises.
It has been quite a while since I last found time to read and blog so when I did get an opportunity I decided to go to my safe space and pick up a work by one of my favorite authors, George Bellairs.
I really enjoyed the rather bizarre sequence of events that lead to the discovery of a crime in this story. Bellairs begins by telling us about the discovery of a rather small-scale embezzlement scheme at a bank but when the investigation into that crime reveals that another account has been emptied with forged paperwork. Attempts to contact the account holder fail and when they visit the property in person they discover that the reclusive homeowner has vanished and a dead body in the attic.
These opening chapters contain some of Bellairs’ funniest and sharpest writing. I particularly enjoyed the way he lays out the sequence of events that follow the initial discovery of the embezzlement and the response of the guilty party.
While you could look on this introduction as being a rather complicated introduction to the case, I appreciated the idea that a major crime was discovered as a consequence of investigating that rather petty case. Firstly I feel it has the effect of making the concealment of the crime seem that much more impressive. Without that chance discovery there really would have been little chance of the body being discovered for some time. Perhaps more critically though it also allows Bellairs plenty of scope to have some fun with a cast of bank officials, no doubt drawing on his decades of experience as a bank manager.
Once the body is discovered, the book does take a somewhat more serious tone although there are still plenty of comedic observations about the characters as well as on topics like modern art and newspaper columns. Bellairs’ witty approach to telling his crime stories is one of the reasons that I keep coming back to his work and can often help paper over a less-than-thrilling case. Rather unfortunately that is exactly what it does here.
The focus of the investigation does not fall on the body that was discovered but on the missing occupant of the house. While that does make some sense as a focus for a Scotland Yard investigation, it does feel a little odd that we spend so little time focused on that death. That partly reflects that the murder is not particularly notable in terms of the method employed and also that the motive is fairly clear.
Bellairs acknowledges this pretty quickly, confirming any suspicions that the reader may have about why the gas man died. This is for the best as it does at least allow him to refocus the investigation on trying to discover the identity of that killer.
The problem here is that Bellairs sets up a situation that seems to quite clearly point at a solution. There are some gaps in our knowledge but from a very early point in the story the general thrust of the explanation as to who committed the crime and why will be quite obvious – all that remains is to follow Littlejohn’s investigation and discover how the guilty party will be caught.
While the reader may not have been able to anticipate the details of the ending at the start of the novel, Bellairs’ approach of carefully setting up each development means that there are relatively few moments in his story that could constitute a surprise to the alert reader. For that reason I would suggest that this book will have far more appeal to procedural readers than those who are looking to play at being an armchair detective.
One of Bellairs’ strengths as a novelist is his ability to create interesting and well-observed characters and that skill is, once again, quite evident here. In the course of the novel Bellairs introduces us to a mix of interesting characters from a variety of different backgrounds and situations.
These characters are not only interesting in terms of the way they are used in the context of the mystery itself but several possess interesting backstories of their own. I was particularly intrigued by the exploration of the life of the art teacher, Hunt, who lives with his invalid sister. These characters have strong and distinct personalities, doing a great deal to bring this scenario to life.
Littlejohn pursues his case with his typical quiet competence and, as always, he proves good company, even if he is not a particularly characterful sleuth. I do appreciate the way Bellairs is able to portray his steadiness and persistence, both qualities we see at play here, though I do not think that this case challenges him particularly compared to some of his other outings.
My only complaint about his investigation would be that he is gifted an enormously lucky break that he does little to earn. In other stories that might have irritated me but I did appreciate that Bellairs shows Littlejohn’s skill in taking that piece of luck and turning it into a bigger opportunity to progress his case which, in turn, sets up an interesting, if not particularly thrilling, conclusion.
Death in Dark Glasses is an amusing and often quite enjoyable story. Its characters are often quite interesting and the basic scenario Bellairs creates is intriguing enough. If you enjoy Littlejohn you will probably find this a comfortable read but the author has certainly written more complex and compelling cases.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Professional is main sleuth (Who)