The Murder of a Quack is another murder mystery in much the same vein as Bellairs’ others: for all that Inspector Littlejohn is chasing murderers, there’s something gentle about the whole thing. I suppose it’s the tenderness and affection with which Bellairs draws some of the characters, even as he makes them funny. The feud between the two oldest men in the village, the village bobby and his squeaky shoes, the foibles of the postmistress and her love of France and all things French… There are some more ugly characters, of course, but even those show glimmers of humanity.
In this particular instalment, Scotland Yard in the shape of Inspector Littlejohn is called in to investigate the death of a local bonesetter, highly respected by most of his community, though hated by the local properly qualified doctor for being trusted and preferred when it comes to minor ailments by most of the villagers. Though he’s a “quack”, that mostly refers to his lack of official qualifications: the story makes it very clear he was an experienced and careful healer, and worthy of trust. Littlejohn has to really poke around to get hold of the murderer in this case, but once he finds the right thread and gives it a good pull, his conscientious work pays off, as always.
Littlejohn isn’t a flashy detective, but that makes him the more enjoyable in a quiet, methodical way. Bellairs’ books lack the drama of some of the other Golden Age writers, but I think more highly of his warmth and ability to draw characters with each book. And this one even made me laugh a few times!
George Bellairs is one of the writers in the British Library Crime Classics series who is reliably entertaining: perhaps not the literary heights of Sayers’ best, or the memorable twists of Christie’s work, but solid and enjoyable, rooted in places and people that feel familiar. It’s well-worn without being tired; the literary equivalent of a duvet day.
This particular mystery features the discovery, over the Christmas season, of the body of a murdered man… a man who was himself suspected of being a murderer twenty years before. Obviously his discovery — just metres from where they found the body of the man he was alleged to have killed — sheds new light on the old mystery, and requires that murder too to be investigated again. Inspector Littlejohn is just spending Christmas away from his usual beat, but he agrees to help investigate, being a Scotland Yard man.
Through patient work and a little insight into human nature, and his willingness to depend on local knowledge rather than think himself above, he… well, it’s a Golden Age mystery, so you won’t be surprised to know that the killer is found, and all is made comfortable again. The killer became obvious to me fairly quickly, and the twist in the tale as well, but I enjoyed the journey nonetheless. Bellairs may not be a particularly fine prose stylist, but he evokes the village and the people within it beautifully. Mrs Myles is rather good, and the Inspector Emeritus as well. Not stunningly original, perhaps, but there’s enough of their speech patterns and gestures and thoughts that they feel just real enough.
Definitely a worthwhile one.
(The Murder of a Quack is a separate book, unrelated apart from the shared detective, so I’ll review that later, separately, even though it’s reissued in the same volume.)
It’s Wednesday again! So here’s the usual check-in. You can go to Taking On A World Of Words to chat with everyone else who has posted what they’re reading right now!
What are you currently reading?
Actively, I think it’s pretty much just Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch — my loan got renewed from the library even though there were people in the queue, which is weird but I’m not arguing, because it lets me take my time and let it sink in a bit more — and Invasive Aliens, by Dan Eatherley, which I will probably sit down and finish as soon as I get done with this post.
Invasive Aliens is okay, but it feels a bit scattered; there are themes to the chapters, but it starts becoming a bit “and ANOTHER thing” after a while.
What have you recently finished reading?
I read Aliette de Bodard’s Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders yesterday in a hot bath, and narrowly resisted the urge to arise dripping and covered in bubbles to read bits to my wife, since Asmodeus is definitely her sort of thing. Instead I took photos of the relevant pages and sent them to her via chat, circling the good bits in red. It was rather nice.
(And yes, she’s convinced and plans to read it.)
What will you be reading next?
Book club reads this month are Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo and The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, and I’ve been meaning to read both more or less since they came out, so that’s probably something I’ll do soon. I’m probably in the mood for a palate-cleansing murder mystery from the British Library Crime Classics series first, and maybe an installment of the Whyborne & Griffin series by Jordan L. Hawk as well. I also have a wicked bad urge to reread John Scalzi’s Lock In, and I might just listen to it.
Lorac starts this book by setting the scene, with a young doctor and his wife moving to an idyllic little village on the moor, self-contained and insular. They’re quickly accepted because of the doctor’s skills, of course, but there’s a little friction with a staple of the place: Sister Monica, a rather severe woman who rules over a little children’s home with an iron fist. Everyone says she’s “wonderful”, and yet there’s something forced about the superlative.
Since it’s a Golden Age crime novel, no surprises that Sister Monica is the one found dead, and that it unravels a whole snarl of issues in the little village. Lorac’s series detective, Macdonald, comes in to take a look — understanding the ways of a small village, but not bound by then, and able to cut some of the knots with plain-speaking and an inability to be rattled.
As always, Lorac is great with a sense of atmosphere: you can practically hear the sounds of the village, smell the scrubbed barren children’s home, feel the spray of the water in the mill race. The killer was the person I guessed, but Lorac avoided tying things up in too neat a bow: there are a couple of questions unresolved, and there’s no “sit all the culprits together in a room” moment. You do get a sense for how her detective works and how she likes to shape a mystery, after reading a few of her books — there are commonalities between this and her other books that felt a bit fresher the first time you read them.
Overall, though, Lorac’s ability to portray a place and a bunch of complicated characters remains a big draw, and I think her books are among the finer ones in the British Library Crime Classics collection (contrast Bude, for example, who I find entertaining but unremarkable as far as style goes).
The Sussex Downs Murder is the third book I’ve read by John Bude from the British Library Crime Classics series, featuring the same detective as the previous two. Meredith is a policeman, and much of the story involves careful police work: cross-checking, putting a man on this and a man on that, and slowly amassing more evidence — so much that at first it’s hard to sort out what’s relevant and what isn’t, and which of the herrings are a suspiciously ruddy colour.
Bude’s writing is like that: methodical, thorough, a little slow, but ultimately assembling a pretty fascinating picture, with some nice set-pieces along the way. I don’t visualise things easily, but Bude brought to life the chalky cliff and the grassy downs of the setting, as his characters walk through them — a sketch, perhaps, but one that suggests just enough to contextualise what the artist wants to show.
I’ll admit that I find John Bude’s plots a trifle obvious, though Martin Edwards’ introductions don’t always help with that. He dropped a clue that raised my eyebrow right at the start, so I figured out where we were going. Still, I didn’t know quite how we’d get there, and with Golden Age crime fiction that’s usually the main thing.
In all, it’s a solid story, I didn’t spot any major holes, and it has its moments for characterisation, setting and humour. Not perhaps the best of the series, but an enjoyable specimen of the species.
This British Library Crime Classic is from later in the development of the genre than some others, with half the book consisting of the rambling story a man tells to a psychologist after being accused of a murder he can’t remember committing. It’s powerfully cringy, as you can see the narrator deluding himself, and pitiful too, because he’s half-aware of himself, and there’s (as someone later remarks) a sort of innocence about him. He seems to have ended up where he is by accident, and without quite understanding, and his mind seems to be gently unravelling… even though now and then he shows insight.
As a piece of writing, it’s excellent; it makes for discomforting reading.
The latter half of the book pulls back, finally admitting just who has been killed (it was one of the two characters I would’ve predicted), and showing the preparations for the trial (and finally the trial itself). This bit is more of a sketch, lingering on details here and there… but mostly just wrapping up the story implied by the opening narrative, which I found a lot stronger.
The ending is sort of predictable once you’ve seen all those details. It makes sense that the story needs wrapping up — you can’t leave that narrative on its own — and yet it all rather weakens and cheapens the effect. A bit of a mixed one for me, now I think about it in that light. Definitely worth a read if you’re interested in the Crime Classics series, though; this is definitely a stand-out for that narrative voice.