Originally published in 1945
Inspector Littlejohn #9
Preceded by Death in the Night Watches
Followed by The Case of the Scared Rabbits
The mayor of Westcome, Sir Gideon Ware, has a speciality for painting a target on his own back. Most recently, he has gained numerous enemies for transforming the quaint harbour town into a sprawling, manmade boardwalk through a series of bribes, blackmail, and backhand deals.
So when Sir Gideon Ware dies at his annual luncheon, it’s no surprise that foul play is suspected.
Inspector Littlejohn is brought in to investigate the murder, but with so many motives to sort through, the suspect list is endless. And with the Chief Constable covering up critical clues at every turn, Littlejohn is left on his own to get to the bottom of Ware’s murder.
But when a second body is found, Littlejohn’s investigation gets put on a fatal timer.
Sir Gideon Ware came from humble beginnings before striking it rich as a property developer, taking the sleepy harbor town of Westcombe and turning it into a thriving, if garish, holiday destination. It is a change that many of the locals resent, feeling exhausted by the steady stream of holidaymakers most of the year round. In spite of that ill-feeling though, Ware has been able to find success in local politics, becoming the town’s mayor just a few years after first being elected.
He’d Rather Be Dead opens by giving us a brief overview of Ware’s background and career as he prepares to speak at a luncheon he is throwing for local dignitaries. Many of the town’s most prominent people have been seated at his table yet, as we learn, most have reason to loathe their host. As Ware rises to give his speech he shows signs of being unwell, collapsing just a short while later. His appearance and subsequent autopsy points to strychnine poisoning but it is difficult to see how the drug, which should be fast-acting, could have been administered to him when everyone ate from the same communal pots and there is no trace of the poison on any of his dishes.
This is the basis for a case in which the question of how the murder was achieved will be as much a focus as whodunnit. I even briefly considered whether I ought to classify this novel as an impossible crime story; it’s the closest thing I have found in Bellairs’ oeuvre so far, though I would suggest that those reading purely for that aspect of the puzzle are likely to be disappointed but the solid but unexciting explanation as to how it was managed.
Like most of the Bellairs novels I have read the author’s greatest interest seems to lie in trying to capture a sense of a place and the people who might reside in it. The victim, Ware, should rank among his best creations (up there with the wonderfully-drawn Harry Dodd) for some of the complexities and contradictions in his character. He feels dimensional and realistic, reminding me of a few people I have met in my own life, and the author does a fine job of exploring the gap between how he perceives himself and how he is perceived by those who have come to rely on him.
This attention to characterization is replicated throughout the rest of the novel’s cast of characters with even some of the most incidental of figures given unexpected depth or personality traits that help to bring them, and the story’s setting, vividly to life. Their resentments that we learn of in the course of Littlejohn’s investigation feel credible and realistic to this sort of town setting and I enjoyed the process of uncovering those secrets and building fuller portraits of each of the figures involved in the case.
One particular source of pleasure for me was in the depiction of the local police who make for rather colorful figures. I am used to these figures quickly becoming anonymous once they call in the assistance of Scotland Yard but I was rather pleased to realize that they would actually be given some prominence in the story. Bellairs captures the tensions between two of the most important police figures in the story, once again helping to build that sense that Westcombe might be a real place.
As wonderful as the character development is, the actual procedural aspects of the case are unfortunately a little less exciting. There was certainly some interest for me in that central question of how the poison could have been administered but I felt that the investigation was rather straightforward with little to cause unexpected shifts in focus or thinking.
It perhaps didn’t help that I think the killer’s identity becomes clear rather earlier in the story than I think Bellairs believed it would as our focus quickly narrows to just a couple of serious suspects thanks to some of the more technical components of the case. I am the last person to complain about an obvious killer but the book isn’t set up to read as an inverted story and aside from the rather awkward shift to a first person account right at its end, does little to capture that killer’s perspective or voice.
Nor does it help that the solution as to how the crime was committed turns out to be quite practical and straightforward, making it feel a little less clever than I had hoped. What’s more, discovering that nature of that solution only makes the solution as to whodunnit even more obvious long before we actually reach the novel’s conclusion.
Bellairs, to his credit, does try to add some dramatic elements to the book’s conclusion, giving us one of the few moments of surprise in the novel, but then undercuts its effect with that strange choice to cut to a first person account from the murderer. This, written in a rather formal and old-fashioned way, feels stylistically strange and also a little redundant as very little of what is revealed was unknown to us. The one thing that this could have given us was an exploration of the emotional angle but here he misses and we never get any deep contemplation of that aspect of the killer’s crimes. It’s a missed opportunity that also blunts the impact the author might otherwise have achieved with the remainder of the ending.
These disappointments, both in terms of the investigation and its resolution, unfortunately waste what was one of the author’s most intriguing setups and some truly marvelous character development. He’d Rather Be Dead is still quite readable with some beautifully observed moments but those reading primarily for the puzzle are likely to be a little disappointed by how straightforward the case becomes.
The Verdict: One of the authors’ most promising setups is not fully realized thanks to some straightforward plotting that indicates the solution far too early. The rich setting and interesting characters compensate somewhat.
Further Reading: Rekha and Kate discussed the book in a spoiler-filled buddy read at Kate’s blog, CrossExaminingCrime.
Anjana at Superfluous Reading also admired Bellairs’ characterizations here in their review.
Bev at My Reader’s Block shared my dissatisfaction with the final few chapters and also seemed to find that the killer’s identity leapt out at them.