The Case of the Headless Jesuit by George Bellairs

The Case of the Headless Jesuit
George Bellairs
Originally Published 1950
Inspector Littlejohn #16
Preceded by The Case of the Famished Parson
Followed by Crime in Leper’s Hollow

As the time strikes midnight and the New Year is rung in Granville Salter stumbles into the church of St. Mark’s, apparently drunk. When he collapses it is discovered that the man has been murdered having been stabbed in the chest with what seems to have been a German prisoner’s knife.

When Inspector Littlejohn arrives he learns that Salter was not the only local to have mysteriously died and also absorbs a little of the local lore. There are two legends that will play a role in this case. The first is that of a ghost that is said to haunt the area – the titular Jesuit. The second relates to a supposed treasure that is hidden somewhere around the Salter family’s ancestral home.

I have now read several Bellairs novels and I keep waiting to find the knockout read I feel sure the author was capable of. The omens with this one seemed particularly promising from its striking title, suggestions of the supernatural and the attention-grabbing opening chapter. Would this be the novel that would make me fall in love with Bellairs?

There is certainly a lot to like here and I will say that I found the book to be a pretty enjoyable read. Let’s start with its most distinctive elements – the two local legends that are incorporated into this story. From my reading so far, this hardly seems typical of Bellairs’ usual style and I certainly do not think he extracts the gothic atmosphere from these elements that other writers may have achieved but I did respect that he manages to make these elements colorful, distinctive and genuinely important to the plot without overwhelming the rest of his narrative.

While the subject matter may seem unusual for Bellairs, I think this is yet another example of his playing with aspects of rural life. His interest is less in the content of the legend but the way it hangs over and becomes part of a small community’s identity. That it adds a little color and spice to the narrative is a bonus rather than its cause for existence and I can certainly respect that approach.

I also felt that the string of murders we see here are fairly interesting in that they clearly must be connected and yet it is hard to see how they could be given the very different lives of each of the victims. The solution to just what happened is interesting and quite powerful, yet I do think that the number of deaths in such a short book means that a few of the killings get far less focus than the others. I think the resolution justifies the more superficial treatment of a couple of deaths but I could certainly understand if some readers felt frustrated that they do not receive a little more attention in the narrative.

And then there’s the characterization which I think is among the best of the Bellairs novels I have read so far. He always seems to have a good handle on countryside types but what I think he shows in this novel is his ability to condense a characterization down into a pithy description. A good example would be the character of Mrs. Alverston who, we are told:

…had a thin, puffy face and the large appealing eyes of the persecuted. If life does not unduly persecute them, they persecute themselves.

Another character who is given a memorable, scandalous introduction is PC Pennyquick.

He had one secret sin. He loved, when alone, to drink with his mouth full. He liked to mix hot, sugared tea with his food.

There are a surprisingly large number of characters in what is quite a short book, yet I think even the most incidental characters feel memorable and distinctive which is quite an achievement.

Given all of these aspects of the book I appreciated and enjoyed, you may be wondering just why I am not being more enthusiastic about this story. The answer is that I think the investigation just feels flat and passive.

While I would never list Littlejohn amongst my favorite detectives from the Golden Age, I do appreciate that he typically adopts a fairly rigorous, methodical approach to investigating crimes. He does the same here, working as usual with the local police and yet here he never really seems to take charge of the investigation. The result is that the case feels unfocused and only really comes together in the final chapters once a third party comes to explain their actions.

We do learn in the aftermath of that moment that Littlejohn had successfully identified them and yet it is hard to extract much satisfaction from that seeing as how he never shares that information with the reader. Though I think the nature of that reveal plays into the themes of the novel and leads to a pretty striking coda scene, I found the journey to that point unsatisfying, not quite working as a detective story while not being thrilling enough to work as a thriller.

Unfortunately the result is a disappointing novel that has some great ideas and themes but never manages to balance them. It’s certainly very readable and entertaining in places but it is hard to overlook a weak investigative narrative.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: At least two deaths with different means (How)

This book was published in the United States as Death Brings In the New Year.

Corpse at the Carnival by George Bellairs

Corpse at the Carnival
George Bellairs
Originally Published 1958
Inspector Littlejohn #29
Preceded by Death Sends for the Doctor
Followed by Murder Makes Mistakes

I had mixed reactions to the first two George Bellairs novels that I read but though I had problems with both books, I could see elements of his work that I liked a lot and so I have been keen to try some other entries in the series. Happily I can report that Corpse at the Carnival was a much stronger effort.

The novel begins with an older man walking along a pier, gazing out to sea and quietly dying. It seems almost peaceful which makes it all the stranger when a knife wound is discovered in his back. When the Police begin their investigations they find that their first challenge will be finding out just who he was as he only seems to be known locally as Uncle Fred.

Chief Inspector Littlejohn happens to be in the area, having visited the Isle of Man to stay with his friend the archdeacon. Though he is supposed to be relaxing he agrees to assist the Police investigation and sets about tackling the mystery of who Uncle Fred really was and why he has been murdered.

Having now read three Bellairs novels I am really starting to appreciate his ability to give a sense of what it is like to live in different parts of the British countryside. The differences between city and country lifestyles is an important theme to this novel and I felt he does a good job of making the Manx setting feel distinctive both in terms of its geography and in the personalities of the people Littlejohn interacts with.

As with The Case of the Demented Spiv, the story unfolds at a somewhat leisurely pace and I would say that understanding the personalities of the various characters is more important to solving the case than details of the mechanics of the crime. We have quite a large cast of characters for this length of book as we get to meet the various tenants and staff of the boarding house in which he lived as well, some people he knows on the island as some other figures from his past. I felt that they were generally very well drawn and appreciated that they were generally more than just types, even those who initially seem to have quite simple roles to play.

Before any of these characters can really emerge as a suspect however we need to get to know Uncle Fred, discover his real name and his personality. The character emerges as a surprisingly complex figure in the course of the novel, possessing some admirable qualities and also some that reflect less well on him. I found that by the end of the novel I was not entirely sure how I felt about him. I consider that to be the mark of a rich, strongly developed character and I found the ambiguity to be quite intriguing.

The other characters benefit from this strong central figure, being able to play off some of the ambiguities in the man. The nature of some of those relationships is as guarded as that of Uncle Fred’s true identity and I appreciated the way the novel allows us to slowly build up a picture of his life rather than have us encounter significant clues. This is a slow paced, leisurely investigation of a man’s life which perfectly matches the novel’s themes but with little time for ratiocination.

These supporting characters do not exist merely to simply to serve the plot or to add to our confusion about the mystery but several are used to support the broader themes of the novel and possess interesting backstories of their own. This helped make this a far richer reading experience than either of the other two Bellair novels I have read to date but it does result in an investigation that sometimes feels a little unfocused and haphazard.

While Littlejohn is able to pull a lot of information together in the end in a credible way, there are unfortunately a few elements of the story that seem to get left unresolved. For instance, there is a question about how a sum of money will be dealt with that seems to be forgotten in the final chapters. I did appreciate however that Bellairs tells us in closing how the different characters’ lives progressed after this investigation was finished.

I was also a little struck by the character’s development at this point. The previous titles I have read were penned much earlier and by this point he has risen in the ranks to Chief Inspector. There is a rather melancholic passage early on where he reflects on how all of his counterparts are gone having either retired or died in the line of duty and at points he is reflecting on how all of the younger detectives he met at his conference seemed to think of him and his lack of a method as archaic. Given this was published in 1958, it seems quite possible this was Bellairs reflecting on readers’ changing tastes in mystery fiction.

Somehow Corpse at the Carnival manages to both celebrate rural traditions and values and yet also feels like it is touching on some countercultural themes and ideas that I associate more with the 1960s.  Unfortunately there are a few spots in the novel where its year of publication becomes all too apparent. One that particularly stood out to me comes when a woman suggests that it would have been to another woman’s benefit to have been struck a little by her husband. She believes this would have helped to remove some of the woman’s airs and graces, making their marriage a happier one. On a similar note, Bellairs uses a few racial terms and expressions that are unlikely to sit well with modern readers.

You may have noticed that in all I have written, I have not really commented on the mystery of the murder. This is partly to avoid giving unintended spoilers but it mostly reflects that the resolution to this mystery is likely to underwhelm those looking for a  puzzle that you can work through. There is no aha moment where it all comes together, no dramatic revelation that the reader will have that changes the complexion of the case. Instead the reader will likely find that their instincts pull them towards suspecting a particular character based on our knowledge of their character and those of others. I will say though that I did appreciate the emotional notes hit in the somewhat unorthodox resolution.

The result is a story that I found more interesting on a social and character level than in terms of its investigation. I liked it a lot and found it to be a very satisfying and engaging read but I suspect for many mystery readers it is unlikely to hit the spot.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Title contains two words starting with the same letter (What)

The Case of the Demented Spiv by George Bellairs

The Case of the Demented Spiv
George Bellairs
Originally Published 1950
Inspector Littlejohn #14
Preceded by Outrage on Gallows Hill
Followed by The Case of the Famished Parson

I had my first taste of George Bellairs last month when I wrote about Death of a Busybody, a novel that I felt had plenty of character but that the mystery was too simple to solve. While I felt a little underwhelmed, I could see some elements I liked and was keen to dive right back in and give him a second go. There are a lot of different Bellairs titles available so I selected one at random and hoped for the best.

The Case of the Demented Spiv is another outing from Inspector Littlejohn published some seven years (and eleven books) after Busybody. While its title is certainly striking, I must say that it doesn’t really reflect the body of the work. There is a spiv in the story but he only appears in the opening scenes and he barely figures in the rest of the story. Still, it led to me taking a closer look at the book so as a title I suppose it did its job.

The novel begins with the titular spiv running into a pub to let people know that he has found a body at a textiles factory and he repeatedly professes his innocence. The body is that of the factory’s manager and is found wearing theatrical paint. The local police seize on him as the most likely suspect however but before the case is brought to trial he hangs himself in his cell. Stuck, the local police call Scotland Yard who assign Littlejohn to the case and after he arrives and the question of his lodgings are settled (this seemingly is an important part of any Littlejohn investigation), he sets to work, listening to village gossip to help him understand the relationships between the various characters he meets.

Bellairs understands rural communities well and captures the strange power an employer can have over their local population. From the beginning of the novel we are led to understand that the Fenning family’s status causes others to alter the way they perceive and interact with them. For instance, we learn that the initial investigation was somewhat half-hearted because of the policeman’s ties to the family. This material is interesting and I felt gave the book some rich themes to explore.

While I think the book never really pulls off any surprises in its situations or characterizations, it executes its plot and character development well. The Fenning family are comprised of some interesting figures and I felt that Bellairs managed the revelations about them very well, slowly building up a clear image of them over the course of the book.

As a sleuth, Littlejohn is very practically minded and methodical and there is a hint of the plodder about him yet I enjoy the way he interacts with the locals, sometimes manipulating them a little while following a lead. Those easy interactions with the locals  are one of the things that make him stand out most as a character.

This brings me to the case itself and here I have somewhat more mixed feelings. On the simplest level, I felt that this novel does not give itself away as badly as Death of a Busybody and I appreciated that the suspects are interesting. However, the nature of the crime feels a little more drab and commonplace while the origins of the most striking aspect of the death, the greasepaint makeup, are less interesting than you may assume. Still, the case builds at a good pace and does have some very satisfying moments in its conclusion though this is not the sort of puzzle mystery that a reader could figure out through ratiocination. Instead the reader should size the suspects up and deduce how the crime might have been achieved.

While The Case of the Demented Spiv is a flawed novel, I find it tidier and much more entertaining than my previous experience with Bellairs’ work and I find I am looking forward to trying other books in this series.

Death of a Busybody by George Bellairs

Death of a Busybody
George Bellairs
Originally Published 1942
Inspector Littlejohn #3
Preceded by Four Unfaithful Servants
Followed by The Dead Shall Be Raised

Miss Tither, an elderly spinster who lives in the village of Hilary Magna, is widely regarded by her neighbors as a judgmental pest. She has routinely stuck her nose into their affairs, revealing perceived infidelities and berating those who are not religious with unwanted debate as well as pamphlets and tracts. Few in the village like her but, being a small community, there is shock when she is discovered drowned in the vicar’s cesspit.

Bellairs introduces us to a broad cast of possible suspects, most of whom she has wronged in some way. Given the complexity of the case, the local police decide to request that Scotland Yard provide some help, although they are careful to request someone with an understanding of country ways. Scotland Yard sends Inspector Littlejohn to investigate.

Right up front I want to acknowledge that this book does something I find deeply frustrating in novels: it features whole passages of speech from multiple characters written in phonetic dialect. This in itself is not enough for me to write off a book – after all, my favorite novel, Wuthering Heights, contains considerable amounts of dialogue styled in a rough Yorkshire voice – but I do find that approach frustrating for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, I rarely feel that the phonetic spellings produce an accurate rendering of a style of speech. More importantly though, it becomes a distraction as the reader is forced to devote much of their time to simply figuring out what on earth a character is saying. In this book a significant portion of the characters, including the village constable, are represented in this way which mostly served to distract me from other facets of the story.

On a more positive note, the manner of the crime is quite striking and the choice of Miss Tither’s final resting place is perhaps an example of the slightly subversive tone to be found in much of the novel. Some of Bellairs’ commentary can be rather amusing and the various village types are all well observed.

Other elements of the plotting seem a little shallow though and the story suffers a little from its clues being too clearly flagged to the reader. One instance of this is particularly frustrating as it involves a familiar Golden Age plotting trick that becomes very clear when highlighted for the reader directly in dialogue and once that point is settled on the rest falls into place very easily. While I am normally excited when I figure out the solution of a crime, here I felt the author had gifted it to me which was not particularly satisfying.

This is a shame because there is much here to admire. Bellairs writes some genuinely witty prose and creates a variety of striking and entertaining secondary characters to enjoy. The actual process of the investigation is well thought out and there is some solid detection work carried out both by Littlejohn and his helper in the city.

One of my favorite sequences involves a character named Cromwell carrying out a series of linked interviews. It is a nice piece of procedural detective work that is not overwritten but features both some fun examples of Bellairs’ wit and character observation and also some useful information that feeds into the broader case.

Unfortunately wit and investigation structure were unable to overcome my frustrations with the story drawing too much attention to one of the most important clues or with the mangled attempts at replicating country voices in prose. While the opening is strong and I thought there were some very solid moments, the piece did not capture my imagination the way I had hoped and once I had figured out the solution it struggled to hold my attention.

Having voiced my disappointment with this story, there were aspects of this book I enjoyed and I have already added some other Bellairs works to my to read pile. I am hoping that my next dip into his work proves a better match for me.