He’d Rather Be Dead is another of George Bellairs’ Inspector Littlejohn stories; I’m not reading them in any kind of order, just picking them up as I come across them or find them on Kindle Unlimited, and luckily that doesn’t matter — you can jump in anywhere. Littlejohn’s character doesn’t really change or develop: it’s purely about the mystery he’s investigating. In this case, it’s the death of the local Mayor, who died at a banquet surrounded by potential enemies made due to his corruption and efforts to revitalise the town in a way the inhabitants see as vulgar.
As with The Case of the Famished Parson, which I read recently, a lot of the opening detail is a red herring: the events of the banquet are relatively unimportant, and Boumphrey — who gets a decent introduction — quickly fades into the background and even becomes rather a suspicious character.
I do enjoy that with George Bellairs’ work, you can usually follow Littlejohn’s reasoning. As the evidence comes to light, the reader gets to see it too. He’s no Sherlock Holmes, all ego and long explanations of his own cleverness; he’s decent and honest, and basically what an ideal policeman should be.
The kind of odd thing with this particular instalment was that it ended with several chapters of the killer’s diary, which just went over information we already knew, in a rather florid style. It doesn’t add much, and honestly… I’d skip it. Otherwise, an enjoyable enough mystery, with George Bellairs’ usual qualities.
Inspector Littlejohn is supposed to be on holiday, taking a break after running himself into the ground on too many cases. As ever, a busman’s honeymoon is sure to follow, and Littlejohn finds himself investigating the murder of a parson, found in an astonishingly emaciated state with his head bashed in. Needless to say, it isn’t a very restful holiday, and Littlejohn even finds himself shot while he’s still making routine inquiries…
When I first read one of Bellairs’ books in the British Library Crime Classics, I thought it was fun, and I’ve definitely found that to be so with all his books. Maybe not the most inventive or technically brilliant, but likeable. I feel like Bellairs really enjoyed writing these books, these competent mysteries where the world is restored to rights by the finding and apprehending of the killer — without police violence, without prying too deeply into people’s psyches. Somehow cosy, even when the crimes are horrible. The Case of the Famished Parson fits well into that mould, and I enjoyed it very much.
I do have to say that I’d expected something a bit more weird, from that title. In the end, the fact that the man was starving is the least part of the mystery — easily sorted out, though it does have a part to play in explaining what happened.
I probably won’t be picking up another book by Bellairs immediately — but I’ll definitely be picking one up again in the near-ish future. They’re even on Kindle Unlimited!
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.)