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.)