Originally published in 1961.
Inspector Littlejohn #36
Preceded by The Body in the Dumb River
Followed by Death Before Breakfast
The glamour of Hollywood has descended upon the Isle of Man: smiling stars, flashing photographers, adoring fans… But behind this glossy façade, something sinister stirs.
Superintendent Littlejohn thought he was in a for few days’ holiday, but when a charismatic leading man is found dead in his hotel room, Littlejohn is called back to investigate.
Was it suicide, murder, or a tragic accident? Rumours run wild and this star-studded case stretches far beyond the shores of the Isle of Man: from London, to Dublin, all the way to the French Riviera.
Only for Littlejohn completists and even then this is a long way down the list.
George Bellairs is one of the authors I most frequently read and write about on this blog. I have previously written about twelve of his mysteries which sounds like a lot but given how prolific he was, it only scratches the surface of his output. Given it has been a few months since I last read a Bellairs novel I thought it a good time to add a thirteenth review to that collection…
Death of a Tin God has Superintendent Littlejohn decide to take a short break in the Isle of Man on his way back from a work trip to Ireland. This is fine, we are told, because it isn’t the ‘busy season’ for crime. If that makes you want to go down a rabbit hole of statistical research you are definitely not alone. You might start with this report from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority written in the mid-80s discussing whether crime itself is seasonal or whether reporting statistics are seasonal…
During the flight Littlejohn is sat behind the movie idol Hal Vale who is flying to the Isle of Man to shoot scenes for a new picture. Vale has a reputation for heavy drinking, being mean with his money and is in the process of securing his fourth divorce so he can marry his co-star, the glamorous Monique Dol.
A short while after arriving Littlejohn is summoned to the hotel where Vale is staying. He has been found dead in his bath, electrocuted by an electric razor that fell into the water. It appears a tragic, if careless accident except that he had received a shave only a few minutes before retiring for his bath…
I was feeling quite excited during these early chapters as this struck me as a very promising opening for a story. I always enjoy mysteries where the detective has to show that it was even a murder in the first place and I think that aspect of the plot is done pretty well.
The victim, Vale, is only very loosely drawn and one of the consequences of that is we never get much of a sense of a cast of suspects who may want him dead. Instead of focusing on building that list of credible killers, Littlejohn rushes after one character who has fled the scene and the next few chapters feel more like a gentle travelogue with descriptions of delicious French meals than an outlining of the case and search for clues.
Now I am the first to argue that a mystery need not be structured as a whodunit to be compelling but if that’s the case there needs to be another compelling question to answer. The question of how it was done is pretty clear so the only remaining angle that needs to be addressed is why.
It happens that Bellairs provides a pretty interesting answer to this but he does not provide much in the way of clues to it. At least, not the sort that the reader could use to get ahead of the detective but rather the type you look at to justify the conclusion you end up with.
Nor is it much of a thriller in spite of a rush of action in the last dozen or so pages. The tone is too rambling and there is too little threat of danger prior to that last chapter to feel like you are reading that sort of novel.
My early excitement had been based, in part, on the prospect of some discussion or depiction of working in the film industry in this period. Unfortunately even this feels largely superficial, with it being treated more as a piece of story dressing rather than an intrinsic part of the setting or themes of this novel. Even the idea of the high glamor of Hollywood never really makes it onto the page other than a few mentions of crowds at the airport in the opening chapter.
I think it is clear that I am not recommending this for a reader who is new to Bellairs but what of the more seasoned Littlejohn fans? Is there anything for them here?
Well, if you ignore the lacklustre mystery you can at least look forward to Archdeacon Kinrade, a fixture of the Isle of Man adventures, meeting Dorange of the Sûreté for the first time. It is quite a charming moment, even if it is hard to understand quite why Kinrade is needed to travel to France at all.
Readers who have enjoyed his descriptions of the French countryside and food will likely also appreciate similar passages in this book of which there are plenty.
All that being said, there are plenty of better Littlejohn stories out there to read. I would suggest making this one of the last ones.