Originally published in 1971
Inspector Littlejohn #48
Preceded by Murder Gone Mad
Followed by Tycoon’s Death-Bed
On the Night that Joss Varran was expected home after a visit to Wormwood Scrubs, his body was found in a ditch right opposite the cottage where he lived with his sister in the silent marshes in the north of the Isle of Man. Chief Superintendent Littlejohn, of Scotland Yard, soon becomes involved in the case as a result of Varran’s recent imprisonment in a London jail.
Joss Varran had been a sailor on a container ship between Ramsey and Preston and somewhere in his voyages had been caught up in events which had made him a hunted man, not so much by the police as by his partners in crime. From all appearances, he had endeavoured to shake them off by getting himself imprisoned!
His efforts, however, were in vain and his murder presents a confusing case in the Manx curraghs for Inspector Knell, of the Manx police, and his friends Littlejohn and the Venerable Caesar Kinrade, Archdeacon of Man.
In the early days of Mysteries Ahoy!, George Bellairs was one of the writers I returned to most frequently. That partly reflected that there were several publishers reissuing them in that period which made new material easy to come by but also that I have found him to be a pretty entertaining writer. While I have yet to come across any works that I might dub a stone-cold classic, I have also not have many really disappointing experiences. Perhaps for that reason I have come to view him as an old reliable that I enjoy checking in with from time to time.
The Night They Killed Joss Varran is by far the most recent of his works I have read to date. It was published in 1971, the start of Bellairs’ final decade of writing, and it is curious to consider how the writer’s style seemed to have changed over the years. This work features many of the hallmarks of the series, being set on the Isle of Man and seeing him interact once more with some of his old friends on the island, but tonally it seems a far cry from some of the author’s lighter, earlier works.
The story concerns the murder of a sailor who has only just returned to the island after spending several years in prison at Wormwood Scrubs. No one should have been aware of his plans to return and it is far from clear quite what might have motivated the murder right outside his home. Keen for an excuse to return to the Isle of Man and see his old friends, Chief Superintendent Littlejohn volunteers to travel there to bring Varran’s prison records and to help with the investigation into his murder.
One of the most striking things about this book to me was the bleak tone struck in many of the interactions Littlejohn has with the locals on the island. Many of the characters are experiencing tough, difficult lives and the book strongly conveyed the idea that many are living in isolation. That bleakness is felt not so much through the descriptions of the physical location, which are surprisingly sparse, but rather in many of the curt social interactions we experience between the characters. It is the dialogue, more than the physical descriptions of places, that really brings the setting to life for me.
There is less humor here than in many of the other novels I have read so far, with the only regular source of light relief coming from some of the interactions around the dinner table at his friend the Archdeacon’s home. This more serious tone is by no means a bad thing, but I found it striking that Bellairs is far more focused on developing his central plot ideas than he had been earlier in his career.
On a similar note, while I think there are elements of the plotting of this story that the reader might deduce, building a puzzle does not seem to be the author’s focus here. For one thing, the title Bellairs gives this book goes a long way to steering the reader towards some critical aspects of the solution, even if they haven’t read the book’s rather revealing blurb. From the near the start the reader should be aware that we are looking for multiple killers but the questions to ask are who did the deed and what were they hoping to achieve by it?
The answers to those questions lies in discovering more about the life and personality of our victim, the late Joss Varran. This character is another in Bellairs’ long line of roguish male murder victims, reminding me a little of Harry Dodd. While we don’t really encounter him alive, I think we are given a strong sense of his character in the conversations about him with some of the other islanders.
The plot Bellairs develops is relatively simple and perhaps predictable given what we already know, though it is interesting to fill in some of the details. We may be able to make a good guess at the sort of motive lying behind the crime from the start of the book but finding the complete story will take a little more time. While those answers may not have surprised me, I found them pretty satisfying and I felt that the author does a good job of walking the reader through the events at the book’s end to piece the story together.
Yet while I felt that the elements of the story make sense, I did wish that the author had taken a slightly less direct approach at times. There is not much in the way of misdirection here and while I acknowledge that there is a puzzle here to solve, it is less a jigsaw than a giant toddler’s floor puzzle. There are so few elements at play that there are only a very limited number of ways you can combine them, perhaps unintentionally pushing the reader towards the solution.
I feel matters are not helped by the rather abrupt ending of the book which comes really quite suddenly. Bellairs does take some time to update the reader on what happened after the crime was solved but it feels so brief that it feels rather perfunctory. This struck me as particularly disappointing as I gather this is the final adventure Littlejohn has on the Isle of Man making this feel like a rather disappointing final bow for Archdeacon Kinrade. It would have been nice to get more of a moment between the old friends and I was disappointed that Kinrade does seem to disappear towards the end of the novel.
The Verdict: While I feel Bellairs rushes his ending, I think the case is quite solid and I enjoyed learning more about our victim. It is hardly a classic work and doesn’t offer much detection but like many other Bellairs novels it is an entertaining one and features some pretty striking characters.