Death in High Provence by George Bellairs

highprovence
Death in High Provence
George Bellairs
Originally Published 1957
Inspector Littlejohn #27
Preceded by Death Treads Slowly
Followed by Death Sends for the Doctor

Given that Inspector Littlejohn is a detective working for Scotland Yard he spends a surprisingly large amount of his time solving mysteries on French soil. I previously reviewed Death Spins the Wheel which saw him make a short fact-finding trip across the channel but Death in High Provence is the first I have read where he is investigating a crime abroad.

In this novel Littlejohn is approached by the British Minister of Commerce whose brother had died in a car accident in Provence. The Police quickly ruled it an accident but the Minister feels that something is suspicious and wants some answers. Being concerned about causing a diplomatic incident the minister asks Littlejohn to visit the area in an unofficial capacity to obtain some evidence of foul play so he can get the investigation reopened.

Littlejohn and his wife travel to the quiet village of St. Marcellin under the less-than-convincing pretense of being travel writers. They try to befriend some of the locals to find out more about the death but the few who do share information disappear…

Because we can already guess much of what Littlejohn discovers in the opening third of the novel its early chapters of the novel concentrating on establishing an atmosphere. Some of this is giving a sense of life in the rustic, decaying village but it is also about building our understanding of the almost feudal relationships that still exist there and that the answers to the recent crime lies in the village’s past.

I have written appreciatively in the past of Bellairs’ ability to write about rural communities and that same skill is very much in evidence here. The descriptions of the landscape and the buildings when they first arrive are rich and wonderfully detailed giving the sense that he is describing real places and people. I really enjoy the small details that pepper the early chapters like the negotiations that have to take place between Littlejohn and the hotel proprietor about when they will have a bath and whether the water will be hot or cold.

Death in High Provence is quite a strange book structurally because the reader begins the novel already aware or at least strongly suspecting the answers to the questions Littlejohn is investigating. To give an example, I doubt that any reader will seriously believe that the deaths were really the result of a car accident and it will soon be clear to the reader who is manipulating the villagers into keeping quiet.

This choice gives the novel some of the texture of an inverted mystery novel and yet I think that would be a misleading label (not least because it is only very strongly implied rather than confirmed in the text). While we know who is behind the conspiracy of silence that does not necessarily equate to knowing the identity of the killer, their motives or exactly what was done. What it does do however is establish a tension that will run throughout the novel and give Littlejohn an opponent of sorts to maneuver against.

Bellairs adjusts the style and pacing of the novel once that opponent emerges, shifting from a slow, conversational approach to investigation to something more active and direct. The book never feels action-driven but I think it finds a new focus in those chapters. It helps that this shift coincides with the discovery of information that gives Littlejohn’s investigation a much sharper and slightly different area of focus though we do not lose sight of the car accident.

I do appreciate that this second phase of the story introduces some stronger mystery elements, creating a puzzle for the reader to solve although the writer’s focus remains on developing his characters and the relationship between Littlejohn and his opponent. The situation Bellairs describes is interesting and I did appreciate that it becomes more complex the more we know about it, building to the very welcome discovery of a second mystery for Littlejohn to work out.

I found that second mystery to be much more intriguing than the first and was surprised by several of the developments and by the overall premise which I thought was clever. Unfortunately I think it also feels a little rushed, in part because it is introduced quite late in the book leaving little time for a focused investigation. When Littlejohn does start to work it through I found I had to reread the conversation to clarify aspects of the complex explanation and wished that a little more room had been allocated to exploring this portion of the story.

Pacing is really the principle issue with Death in High Provence. The opening chapters are certainly atmospheric and establish a sense of obstacle but Bellairs takes too long to begin moving his narrative forward, leaving little room for the meat of the mystery. The circumstances of the second investigation are much more interesting than the first and could easily have supported a whole novel in themselves and yet they feel buried away in the final third of the novel, hinted at but not directly addressed until shortly before the end.

For that reason I cannot say that Death in High Provence is a particularly successful novel. It certainly stands out as being quite different in structure and style than any of the other Bellairs novels I have read so far but I couldn’t help but think that this would have worked better as a novel with a French policeman such as Bellairs’ Dorange taking the lead rather than an English detective like Littlejohn. Making that change might have allowed Bellairs to skip over some of the necessary establishing material to explain how and why Littlejohn gets involved and get directly to the mystery which, given more space, had potential to be quite interesting.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Any country but US or UK (Where)

The Case of the Demented Spiv by George Bellairs

Demented
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.

There Came Both Mist and Snow by Michael Innes

ThereCameBothSnow
There Came Both Mist and Snow
Michael Innes
Originally Published 1940
Inspector Appleby #6
Preceded by The Secret Vanguard
Followed by Appleby on Ararat

Last month I had my first taste of Michael Innes’ work when I read Lament for a Maker, a novel that I found a thoroughly frustrating read because of Innes’ decision to write a third of it in Scots dialect. In spite of that though I thought the murder mystery plot was quite clever and so I resolved to give Innes another chance.

There Came Both Mist and Snow is a story set at Christmas in which a family gathers to celebrate the season together. We soon learn that members of the family harbor resentments towards each other and that nearly every member of the party have become fanatics about shooting revolvers on a range that has been constructed on the grounds.

I suspect you can guess what happens next.

A member of the party is found shot at a desk. Fortunately Inspector Appleby happens to arrive on the scene as a guest and is available to lend a hand in looking into the incident. Quickly he decides to recruit the narrator as a sort of reluctant Watson figure to his Holmes and they begin their investigation, soon realizing that the details of the crime may not be as straightforward as they first appeared.

While There Came Both Mist and Snow may not have been written in dialect, I found it to be similarly frustrating to read. The first ten chapters are particularly rough going and show signs of an author determined to let the reader know that they are Very Smart. Having now read a fair number of Golden Age novels, I am always prepared to hit the dictionary to lookup a word that may have fallen into disuse or check on one of those obscure classical allusions that every child would have picked up on in the 1920 and 30s but there are some words used here that would have been archaic or pretentious even then. Examples include valetudinarian, cicerone, hypnogogic and badinage.

Other examples of random, frustrating literariness include an extended scene in which characters take turns giving Shakespearian quotations relating to bells in a sort of impromptu contest which even the characters find tiresome. While I know there are readers who love this sort of dense, literary material, it really detracted from the experience for me.

What makes these sorts of things so frustrating is that Innes, when he forgets about being literary, is often quite an entertaining writer and comes up with some lovely, witty remarks or memorable turns of phrase. For instance, using ‘he had the mental habits of an industrious but unimaginative squirrel’ to describe a character. And once the shooting takes place the book does gain a much-needed sense of focus and direction.

The crime itself did at least hold some interest for me, in part because the victim is not killed by the gunshot which is something of a novelty in crime fiction and also because the circumstances of the shooting are not clear. Appleby’s job investigating this crime is complicated because it is not clear that the person shot was the intended victim and this does lead to some interesting theorizing and discussion about the different possible explanations there could be for what had happened.

This could have been the recipe for a memorable crime story but the elements just didn’t click for me. I think that may reflect that I simply didn’t find the cast of characters interesting or memorable. It often felt to me that the author was more interested in providing witty commentaries on their artistic inclinations and pretensions than in establishing them as credible killers. Appleby’s investigation seems to meander and the ending, with features several different theories being offered, dragged and disappointed.

Having now given Sir John Appleby and his creator two chances to impress me, I feel I can say with some confidence that these stories are simply not for me and I am unlikely to try any others. If you enjoy denser, more literary reads this may be of interest and worth investigation.

Review copy provided by NetGalley.

Lament for a Maker by Michael Innes

LamentforaMaker
Lament for a Maker
Michael Innes
Originally Published 1938
Inspector Appleby #3
Preceded by Hamlet, Revenge!
Followed by Stop Press

Ranald Guthrie, the laird of Erchany, is widely considered to be mad by those who live on his lands. He is a miser who lives in seclusion and his behavior seems to be increasingly erratic.

Late one night he is observed falling from the highest tower of his run-down castle and is found dead in the snow below. Did his madness drive him to commit suicide or was his death an act of murder?

If that seems like a very general summary of the novel it reflects how difficult it is to write about it without spoiling it heavily. The book is an oddity, being constructed of several sections written from the perspectives of different characters that often overlap in the events they depict, casting them in different lights as we learn more information.

This is an interesting approach in theory and its success will likely depend on how much you like the characterizations of the different narrators. I will certainly credit Innes for managing to create several distinctive voices and personalities for these narrators and I did appreciate that each takes on a slightly different style reflecting that character’s outlook.

Now, I should say at this point that I have never really cared for the idea of writing in dialect. I accept it when it happens and will certainly admit that it can convey a strong sense of place or character but it is also an unnecessary obstacle for the reader. In Lament for a Maker, the entire first third of the book is written in Scots dialect and although I lived for years in Glasgow and had a Scottish grandmother, I found deciphering the text to be a chore. It is not that it is impossible to decipher – Innes is good at situating dialect terms in a context where their meaning is generally quite clear – but it slows the pace down for anyone who is not familiar with the terms.

What makes this approach all the more frustrating is that while almost all of the characters involved in the story and narrating sections are Scottish, none of the other characters narrating do the same. It may have added mood and atmosphere but I think more selective use of Scots terms could have had the same effect and made the work more accessible.

Once we transition to the second narrator I found it much easier to engage with the work and to follow what was happening. The story’s structure mean it is constructed less like a traditional whodunit and more as a haunting, highly literate Gothic mystery told by a series of narrators who simply do not have the complete story. It is an interesting approach to take and I did find many of the answers provided to be quite surprising and satisfying.

Erchany is a compelling setting for a story and I did find the descriptions of its crumbling architecture and the infestation of rats to be extremely effective at setting the scenes and creating a haunting atmosphere. At times the narrative seems to skirt on the edge of the supernatural in some of the elements it employs though in the end the story is quite rational and driven by its characters’ psychology. I certainly would describe myself as being generally satisfied by the solution.

The book’s chief problem is that its stylistic and structural choices dominate the storytelling, creating a book that delivers plenty of atmosphere but which suffers from a lack of clear storytelling focus. I gather that this is not the typical sort of structure that Innes would create, so if you are curious to sample his work I would suggest that you may want to start with one of his other stories.

There is one other thing I should mention which is, again, an example of how this book is somewhat atypical. You may be puzzled how I managed to write over six hundred words without commenting on the story’s sleuth, Sir John Appleby, who would go on to appear in many other stories. The reason I haven’t commented on the character is that their role in this story is extremely minimal and, when he does appear, he hardly makes an impact.

The lack of a strong presence for a sleuth does not diminish the mystery or its solution. This is a clever tale and one that has a lot of personality. I am not sure, on reflection, whether I would have wanted this to be my first experience of Innes’ style if I had known how different it is from his other works. Still, it builds atmosphere masterfully and I did respect Innes’ skill at creating several distinct narrative voices. While I won’t be rushing to read any further works by Innes, I am sure I will return to him at some point.

Review copy provided through NetGalley.