A Knife for Harry Dodd by George Bellairs

A Knife for Harry Dodd
George Bellairs
Originally Published 1953
Inspector Littlejohn #21
Preceded by Half-Mast for the Deemster
Followed by Corpses in Enderby

A little while ago I made a list of how often I had reviewed works by particular authors and I was surprised to see that George Bellairs had come in second place. While nearly half a year has passed since I read anything by him, I have been looking for an opportunity to return to his work and when I saw that Agora were planning to reissue this one I couldn’t resist requesting a review copy.

Inspector Littlejohn is asked to investigate the death of Harry Dodd, a man who was discovered stabbed in the back when apparently on his way back from the pub. It turns out that Harry’s brother is a Member of Parliament with ambitions for very high office and while the crime itself seems like the sort the local police might handle, he desires for it to generate as little scandal as possible.

When Littlejohn arrives in the village he learns more about Harry’s somewhat unusual living arrangements. It turns out that he had a one-night stand with his typist that had been discovered and he had been divorced and given a payoff to leave his position with the family business. While he had no feelings for the woman, he decided to stand by her and acquired a cottage where he lived with her and her mother, making her a regular allowance.

Initially it is hard to understand why Harry might have been a target for murder but Littlejohn, in pursuing a few loose ends, uncovers more about his life which considerably broadens the scope of the investigation. What follows is a story that feels more procedural as we try to sort out the nature of relationships and understand how the various plot threads connect to each other.

I have often remarked on how one of Bellairs’ greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to create credible characters. This skill is once again clearly in evidence here not only in the array of suspects he presents us with but in the character of the victim himself who really looms over this whole narrative.

Harry Dodd is not a character who gets murdered and then fades into the background. He is clearly an eccentric but also deeply complex man. At first I was a little skeptical about the way that he had been imagined here, finding some contradictions in how he was being presented. I soon realized that these were entirely intentional and that a significant part of the story would deal with resolving these different images of Harry to understand exactly who he was and what his values were.

That journey was, for me, a deeply satisfying one, revealing him to be a complex and layered figure. In her review (linked below), Kate at CrossExaminingCrime remarks on how complicated a portrayal it is of a man who has been unfaithful to his wife. While I would point out that Bellairs is not necessarily flattering in the way he depicts Dorothy Nicholls or her mother, I agree that it is far more candid and clear in its discussion of these issues than I might have expected (though he uses the phrase Menage a Trois in a way I have not encountered before which caused a little confusion on this reader’s part at first!).

The cast of characters that Bellairs creates to be suspects and witnesses are just as memorable and come from an interesting mix of social classes and professions. Each feel well observed, particularly Dodd’s politician brother who as a socialist is embarrassed by his family’s links to industry and marriage into one of the county’s oldest families.

Bellairs develops his story well and there are a number of interesting and unexpected twists, even if I felt that the guilty party was clear long before any evidence turned up to link them to the crime. Part of the reason for that is because the narrative is complex with a relatively large cast of characters and a winding focus, there are relatively few figures who are around long enough to be truly credible. For that reason I think it’s helpful to think of this as a procedural – the destination is no more important than the journey to get to that point. Thankfully that journey turns out to be a fascinating one.

There are perhaps one or two too many murders, leading to a few feeling rushed and overshadowed by the more important ones. Still, they do at least contribute to the main thrust of the narrative and one does spin the story off in a really interesting new direction.

I also felt a little frustrated that a few characters’ fates are essentially left unresolved with them disappearing from the narrative after a while. I could understand why this would be desirable given they had no direct role to play in the case as it changed but it would have been nice to have at least a little information about what happened to them.

On the other hand, I think the ending packs some real emotional resonance and I was pleased to find that a few things I felt were sure to be loose ends were wrapped up more tidily than I could have hoped. It made for a very satisfying conclusion to what I would regard as one of the best novels I have read by Bellairs, sitting comfortably alongside The Dead Shall Be Raised (this is the more interesting case, that had the more interesting setting).

A copy was provided by the publisher, Agora Books, for review.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Means of murder in the title (What)

Further Reading

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime liked the book a lot saying that the mystery becomes “bigger and more intricate than you expect”. She also praises the complex depiction of Harry Dodd.

Rekha @ The Book Decoder was also full of praise for this book saying that the “the quirk factor and the humor was at an all-time high”.

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 Dead Shall Be Raised by George Bellairs

DeadShall
The Dead Shall Be Raised
aka. Murder Must Speak
George Bellairs
Originally Published 1942
Inspector Littlejohn #4
Preceded by Death of a Busybody
Followed by Murder of a Quack

When I was making my plans for my week of festive reads I had not noticed that my 200th fiction review would be falling right in the middle of it. I only noticed a few days before and when I found that I wasn’t enjoying the book I had planned to review in this slot I decided to change things up and find something else that would not only fit the festive theme (as I happily learned from a review at Gaslight Crime) but also feel appropriate for a milestone post.

Over the past year I have returned time and again to the mystery novels of George Bellairs. Looking at the list of authors I have previously reviewed he comes second only to Freeman Wills Crofts which is remarkable given I was never really bowled over by any of his books. I always believed that, with patience, I would come across one of his books that would really hit the mark for me. I am very pleased to be able to report that The Dead Shall Be Raised proved I was right to keep that faith.

This novel was one of the earliest Bellairs wrote, being published in 1942 and it was recently reissued by the British Library in a double-bill with The Murder of a Quack. It is notable for several reasons but the one that interests me most is that it is essentially a cold case story. Littlejohn happens to be in the area visiting his wife for Christmas when a body is discovered of a man who disappeared over twenty years earlier having been believed to have murdered one of his colleagues in a dispute over a woman’s affections. Many of the original figures from that case have died or moved away leaving the Inspector with limited leads to follow.

Bellairs presents us with a situation that feels much more complex and mysterious than any I have encountered in his other stories to date. The crime scene itself is inherently confusing as it is hard to understand why the two bodies, apparently linked in death, were treated differently with just one being buried. As Littlejohn interviews the surviving witnesses and family members he learns more about the two victims and their relationship, identifying several suspects into the bargain.

I have written before about how well Bellairs conjures up a sense of the countryside in his work and I can only reiterate that opinion here. He not only gives a strong impression of the rugged landscape but the people who inhabit the town of Hatterworth feel real and well-observed. They respond to Littlejohn’s presence quite differently, some being excited or drawn to him because of the idea of an important detective taking an interest in their lives, others feeling he is an outsider whose efforts are likely to cause more trouble than good. They feel like a real community and while we only get to know a few characters very well, it adds credibility to the setting and situation.

It turns out that Bellairs is not only good at giving a sense of place, his writing conveys a sense of the time in which this book is written. This book is set in 1941, a year before publication, and there are parts of this story that strongly give a sense of the wartime experience. For instance, the book opens with a wonderful sequence in which we see Littlejohn having to travel by night which means trying to navigate an unfamiliar area with so little light that you cannot see the person sat next to you in a car. Bellairs not only tells you what they had to do, he gives you a sense of how it felt and I found it to be a really compelling opening to the novel.

Littlejohn is a practical, methodical detective whose approach to a case focuses on establishing and corroborating simple details. This means that many of the key points of the story seem to be slowly teased out or come into focus rather than being revealed in a sudden twist or development. Where this story differs from some of the later Bellairs novels I have read is that the reader also has to consider the mechanics of the crime much more than usual, only serving to complicate the eventual solution.

One other aspect of this book that stood out for me was that Bellairs reveals the killer’s identity far earlier than is usual in his work. Heading into the final chapters we are aware of who was responsible for carrying out the crime but we have not seen how it was done or exactly why and so these questions, rather than that of the killer’s identity, come to dominate the book’s conclusion. It makes for a nice change and I am really happy to be able to say the clues are fairly placed throughout the story and the solution fits the facts well.

The only disappointments for me were that Littlejohn’s wife who is supposedly his reason for visiting really doesn’t feature much in the story making you wonder if her inclusion was necessary at all while that the ending feels a little too easy for Littlejohn and certainly too tidy. Given the quality of the puzzle up to that point, the resolution feels like an afterthought and not quite earned by the investigator’s efforts up until that point.

Happily I found the journey to that point to be both interesting and entertaining. This book is not just a good character study or travelogue but a fascinating case with some solid complications, interesting investigative techniques and a very clever solution. It is easily the best Bellairs I have read so far and falls into that category of mysteries set at Christmas you can really read the whole year round. Highly recommended.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: During a Recognized Holiday (When)

The Dead Shall Be Raised was reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics range in a double-bill omnibus edition with The Murder of a Quack. It was published in the United States as Murder Will Speak (both titles are excellent).

Death Spins the Wheel by George Bellairs

DeathSpins
Death Spins the Wheel
George Bellairs
Originally Published 1965
Inspector Littlejohn #42
Preceded by Surfeit of Suspects
Followed by Intruder in the Dark

Death Spins the Wheel is the seventh Inspector Littlejohn novel I have read and while I typically find them to be light and diverting reads, I would not label any of the previous books I read as great detective stories. The closest I have come is Calamity at Harwood but that plays out more like a thriller with very little deduction taking place. This is a more traditional detective story, spinning a story with an interesting wartime background and some very solid puzzle elements to good effect.

Death Spins the Wheel begins with the death of an elderly French woman who has arrived on the Isle of Man to gamble at the Casino. The employees are surprised to see that she is working a system and that she is reliably successful, winning some tidy sums at roulette before walking away from the tables.

She is discovered dead on the beach in the evening having been shot with a small handgun. She does not seem to be killed for her money as her winnings are still present while the only other French visitors or residents are all accounted for leaving the police stumped as to who would have wanted her dead.

Adding to the confusion, a woman reports that a Frenchman was found injured in the road in the early hours of the morning. He appeared to have suffered a heart attack but did not want medical assistance and disappeared when one of the people helping him went to summon help.

Inspector Littlejohn, who appears to have learned nothing from each of his previous attempts to take a holiday on the island, finds that his stay is interrupted with a request from the local police to lend his services to their investigation. He is happy enough to agree and before long will find himself travelling to France and Switzerland to look into the matter along with his old friend the archdeacon to look into the woman’s background.

Before I get into the case I would like to take a moment to reflect on the setup for the case. This novel was published in 1965, just a few years after the first legal casinos opened within the UK, and there is clearly an element of novelty in the setting. We are reminded through the comments of the Archdeacon’s housekeeper that this was still a pretty controversial development at the time and the author does have to explain, albeit very simply, that visitors had to apply for a short-term membership to play in the games.

One question that seems important at the start of the novel although it is quickly superseded by other developments in the investigation is whether our elderly gambler really did have a system or if she was just lucky. The answer is, in this reader’s opinion, sadly quite ridiculous and I can only be thankful that we move past it into more intriguing ground.

The events of this novel are grounded in events from the past and it is this aspect of the book that I think is most successful. Here we see Littlejohn and the Archdeacon trying to make sense of sometimes conflicting accounts about scandals that some would prefer to remain kept covered up and while I have seen many of the ideas here used elsewhere, I think that Bellairs uses them to create intriguing motivations for several of his suspects.

I doubt that many readers will be seriously puzzled by the killer’s identity though their motivation for carrying out the deed may require a little more work to figure out. Even if you do figure out the puzzle, I think the book works on a simple, thematic level to tell an engaging story that draws upon the European war experience.

There are also some moments that I think will please those who have regularly dipped into these stories such as the Archdeacon’s active involvement in trying to solve this mystery. In fact there are a few points in this story where he is more active than Littlejohn and certainly asking more questions. I also appreciated that this story takes in Bellairs’ two favorite locales of the Isle of Man and France within a single novel and I certainly appreciated our sleuths’ movement within the story as they hope from locale to locale trying to build up a picture of Madame Garnier’s life.

I would consider this one of the strongest Bellairs novels I have read so far, although I still think the mystery is a little slight and reiterate my distaste for the explanation as to how Madame Garnier wins at the tables. In spite of those grumbles, I found it to be an entertaining and quick read and I did enjoy the way the tale draws on what was then recent European history as background for the case.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Calamity at Harwood by George Bellairs

Harwood
Calamity at Harwood
George Bellairs
Originally Published 1945
Inspector Littlejohn #7
Preceded by The Case of the Seven Whistlers
Followed by Death in the Night Watches

It is 1938 and property developer Solomon Burt’s car happens to break down on the road between London and Brighton. He is initially frustrated at an unexpected delay until he sees a stately home in a very promising setting. After making enquiries, he sees the opportunity to snap up the property by purchasing and calling in the landowner’s loans and goes about dividing the home up into luxury flats.

Several years later the redevelopment is finished and the flats are being let but during the building the contractors had complained that it was haunted. Among the signs were strange noises being heard and items being moved around. When the new residents witness similar events several are spooked and look to terminate their leases early.

Then one night Burt is seen being dunked in the pond, supposedly by those ghosts, before being thrown to his death from the top of the staircase a short while later. The staircase was observed by multiple witnesses within moments of the death, all of whom insist that none of the residents could have been placed to commit the murder. While this seems to tie in with the idea of a haunting, Littlejohn is certain that Burt was killed by someone living and sets about to prove it.

While this may sound like Bellairs is entering impossible crime territory, I would caution that this novel really doesn’t read that way. The author certainly gives little attention to exploring the sequence of events that led to Burt’s death preferring to spend time asking how and why it has been made to seem as though Harwood is haunted and the motives for the murder. As puzzles go, this is certainly the most interesting one I have seen so far from Bellairs and I enjoyed discovering just how these events fitted together.

Bellairs creates a curious mix of residents to populate these flats including and Austrian archaeologist and his two strapping assistants, an actress, a playwright, an American couple and a pair of elderly sisters, one of whom is completely deaf. These characters feel appropriately distinctive and, unlike in the other Bellairs novels I have read, seem surprisingly cosmopolitan as all of them are newly settled in the countryside.

While this sounds like a promising array of suspects, I would once again offer a small caution that Bellairs deviates from some of the structure and beats of the traditional whodunit, opting instead to develop his story as more of a thriller or adventure. There are clues present and the attentive reader can certainly beat Littlejohn to discovering what is going on, but we soon move beyond questions of alibi into simply trying to understand how each of the facts we have connect. I do think there is some stronger plotting on show here than I am used to with Bellairs’ work and while there are some familiar ideas on display from other books and works of the period, I think he stitches these together into a pretty entertaining narrative.

Littlejohn is on decent form, though he exhibits a little less personality than in some of his later appearances. There is an interesting moment late in the novel where he takes an action with little thought for the way it will affect the person he’s speaking to that feels curiously unresolved and incomplete. This struck me as a missed opportunity to have the character perform some reflection but it goes completely without notice which is a shame.

Littlejohn does spend quite a lot of time bossing his deputy Cromwell around who was a character I believe I was encountering for the first time here. A few of those requests did seem to venture way across a line, such as ordering him to draw up a bath for him and stand in the room as he washed himself so they could talk over the case. Cromwell is quite competent though and does make some solid contributions to this case – I do think Littlejohn benefits from the companionship and having a sounding board to bounce ideas off here.

Though Calamity at Harwood is not the best example of a traditional detective story because of some aspects of its storytelling that emphasize moments of revelation over deduction, I do think it is a very competent thriller and builds to a solid and entertaining conclusion. I was particularly drawn to the strangeness of the circumstances of the death and found getting the answers to what had happened to be really quite satisfying and interesting.

Is it that knockout Bellairs read I keep searching for? Not quite, but if the premise sounds promising or you like works set on the home front during World War II this may appeal. It certainly feels a lot closer to that ideal than most of the others I have read so far. If you do plan on reading it though I would suggest skipping reading the blurbs however on print and e-book copies as they do give away a substantial detail that is only revealed late in the novel.

Toll the Bell for Murder by George Bellairs

TolltheBell
Toll the Bell for Murder
George Bellairs
Originally Published 1959
Inspector Littlejohn #32
Preceded by Bones in the Wilderness
Followed by Death in Despair

If you are a seasoned reader of this blog I know what you’re wondering: why is Aidan trying another Bellairs when he’s read four of them already and has yet to be blown away by any of them? It’s a fair question but the reason is that, even in the weakest of his efforts, I find aspects of the writing enjoyable and I feel sure that there must be one of his novels where everything I like comes together to deliver a perfect mystery.

Well, if there is a perfect Bellairs out there it turns out that I will have to look a little more to find it but Toll the Bell for Murder is the closest thing yet, albeit with some reservations. Like my previous favorite, Corpse at the Carnival, Littlejohn is on the Isle of Man at his friend Archdeacon Kinrade’s request to unofficially look into a curious murder that seems to have been committed by a priest on the island.

The novel opens with a group of villagers preparing for a jumble sale by pricing donated items. Among those items is a shotgun and a box of ammunition which the vicar diligently sets to making sure is in working condition and pricing. In the early hours of the morning there is a loud shot in the vicinity of the church and a few minutes later the vicar begins violently ringing the church bell. When the villagers stumble up to the church they discover Reverend Lee praying over a body shot in the head. That shotgun lies next to him and he refuses to say anything in his defence. While no one really believes Lee would resort to murder, his unwillingness to cooperate means the investigation has hit a dead-end.

The victim, it turns out, is Sir Martin Skollick who is widely regarded as a bit of a scoundrel. An arrival from England, he has not only entered into land disputes with many of the locals but also seduced several of the young women in the neighborhood. Littlejohn soon realizes that there were plenty who would want him dead but first he will have to find a way to prove Lee’s innocence and discover what really happened that night.

Littlejohn sets about speaking with the locals to get a sense of the people involved and to learn more about the victim. These interviews are often somewhat rambling making progress in that investigation slow but they help establish the sense of place which I think is Bellairs’ greatest strength as a writer. Each of his characters feels distinctive, both in their personalities and in the way they talk, and I had no difficulty imagining any of them.

Similarly Bellairs pays a lot of attention to describing the landscape of the Manx curraghs and the isolation of some of the communities there. This style can occasionally feel a little travelogue-y, as TomCat said in the comments of a previous post, so if you’ve tried previous stories by the author and didn’t care for the focus drifting away from the crime narrative then this is probably not the book for you.

I don’t want to give the suggestion however that the murder is in any way an afterthought. Bellairs does take a lot of time to build up several suspects, crafting credible motivations for each of them. Unlike in some of the previous Littlejohn stories I have read, the suspect pool remains pretty much intact until the end.

Unfortunately the process of getting to the point where Littlejohn Explains It All is a little less satisfactory. Here we risk getting into spoiler territory in a big way so, being as general as I can be, I think there are two basic issues that impinged on my enjoyment of the ending. The first is that a typical beat of the normal detective novel resolution does not occur in its usual fashion. Now, I am the first to appreciate attempts to innovate or play with expectations but unfortunately I think it makes the conclusion feel a little less satisfying.

The second issue relates to the evidence Littlejohn gathers and uses when explaining everything at the end. While I certainly understand how he is able to use the things he learns to back up his reading of what happened, I am not sure that he really proves his case through the evidence. That may not bother everyone but coupled with the first issue it does mean that the ending feels a little anticlimactic.

Toll the Bell for Murder will not be for everyone. It is quite leisurely paced and some will be frustrated by the focus drifting away from the investigation. That said, I found it to be a more interesting book than any of the previous Bellairs titles I have read and it renews my hope that there will be a book where he knocks it out of the park. I just potentially will have to dig through another 56 books to find it…

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: On an Island (Where)

The Case of the Headless Jesuit by George Bellairs

Jesuit2
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.