Death March for Penelope Blow by George Bellairs

Originally published in 1951
Inspector Littlejohn #18
Preceded by Crime in Leper’s Hollow
Followed by Death in Dark Glasses

In the wake of Mr. William Blow’s death, his surviving relatives find themselves tangled up in family secrets and financial mystery. So when Miss Penelope Blow suddenly dies by falling out her bedroom window, suspicions are raised. With Scotland Yard under pressure to determine the widow’s fall was really accidental, Inspector Littlejohn is called in to get to the bottom of the case. But the deeper Littlejohn delves into the case, the more secrets he finds. From malice to madness, there is one possible cause. Can Littlejohn uncover the truth before another tragedy befalls the Blows?

One of the reasons I return to Bellairs’ Littlejohn novels so frequently is the hope that I may discover that elusive ‘stone-cold classic’ among his considerable output. To date the closest thing I had found was A Knife for Harry Dodd but while the search for that knockout title continues, I am happy to say that Dead March for Penelope Blow is a comparably great read.

The novel opens with Miss Penelope Blow visiting Scotland Yard for the third day in a row, hoping to speak with Inspector Littlejohn regarding a private matter. Unfortunately for her he is away working a case and so she reluctantly leaves a message with instructions on how to call her. Before he can follow up and speak to her however she is dead having fallen from her bedroom window in what appears to be a tragic accident.

Littlejohn is concerned by the timing of the death and so decides to visit the area to learn why she wanted his help. While the verdict of the inquest is accidental death, Littlejohn becomes convinced that the spinster was murdered and that the reason for her death was related to her visits to see him in London…

One of reasons that I think this book had such a strong and immediate appeal for me was the hook of Penelope Blow having attempted to speak with Littlejohn prior to her murder. This trope of the detective’s help being sought but it not coming in time, either because of a failure to reach them as here or a refusal, is one of my favorites in Golden Age detective fiction. The reason is that it provides a really strong motivation for the detective to keep investigating, even when there appears to be no crime at all. Here we get a further layer of mystery as it is far from clear what the matter was that she was so desperate to speak with Littlejohn about.

We soon learn more about the Blow family, their history, and their status within their community. Their stories are all interesting and what we discover provides some clear points of tension within the family to explore as well as potential motives for murder. There are also a few barriers to the investigation however as the Chief Constable has no wish to call in Scotland Yard while Littlejohn is turned away from the home by one of the family and forbidden from returning or speaking with the other members of the household. Bellairs explores the challenges that brings well and I appreciate what it illustrates about the characters involved as well.

This brings me to another of the things I really like about this book: it highlights Littlejohn’s resourcefulness and his ability to quickly build relationships with those in the community. He is able to convince the servants to assist him, even though they know that they will be dismissed if their cooperation is discovered. It is those characters, sitting outside the pool of suspects, that prove to be among the most memorable in the book and that will provide Littlejohn (and us) with the bulk of the information needed to solve the case.

Of the various characters Littlejohn meets, the most colorful by far is the retired military man Captain Broome who, we are told, is ‘like a character out of Kipling’. It is not just his lively, brisk pattern of speech that captures the eye and often amuses but also the richness of that character’s backstory. His life is just interesting, not just for the way it ties into the mystery proper but also for its more tragic elements. Given how this character could so easily have been one-dimensional, I really appreciated the thought and time given to building him up and the more emotional, tender moments that character has. Other characters, such as the clergyman who recommended that Miss Blow consult Littlejohn are similarly more layered than they initially appear.

Returning to the murder case, I appreciated the careful construction of the plot and the way Bellairs distributes the clues throughout the mystery. While, as I noted at the start, the solution is not particularly surprising at the point at which it is revealed, earlier developments are often much more unexpected, often significantly changing our understanding of the case’s dimensions in interesting ways. It’s impossible to give examples without spoiling those moments but I enjoyed each of the possibilities Bellairs dangles in front of us and was particularly delighted by the one introduced in the chapter titled Mr. Claplady Confides which uses one of my favorite Golden Age mystery elements (no spoilers here but you’ll know it when you get to it!).

As is often the case in Bellairs’ novels, his prose is often very wryly amusing. One of the most entertaining examples of this can be found early in the novel as Littlejohn attempts to seat himself in a restaurant after waiting for some time without being greeted. It is not just that this scene is beautifully observed in that initial moment (I suspect many readers will recognize the sort of employee who confronts him) but Bellairs successfully pays off that moment later in the chapter with a very strong punchline.

Above all, it is one of his most readable tales, offering an interesting mix of characters and a satisfying puzzle to solve. For those who have never tried any of Bellairs’ work before I think it would be a very strong starting point, showcasing multiple aspects of the author’s style as he transitioned from his early puzzle-based style to the social and character focus I have found to dominate his later works.

The Verdict: One of the most interesting and entertaining Littlejohn cases I have encountered to date. Bellairs develops an interesting premise, working it to a very solid end that is unlikely to shock but that satisfied nonetheless.

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