George Bellairs: Death of a Busybody

deathofabusybodyThe shapes of clustered cottages could just be discerned in the pitch darkness. The wind hissed in the leaves of the trees round the inn. A fox barked somewhere in the distance and was answered by the challenges of yard-dogs. The detective lit his pipe and strolled slowly along the road.

This is first-rate comfort reading from the British Library. George Bellairs (real name Harold Blundell) was a bank manager who began a second career as a prolific mystery writer in 1941. The BL published two titles last year – the other is an omnibus The Dead Shall be Raised and Murder of a Quack.

Inspector Littlejohn of the Yard is called in to solve the murder of Miss Tither, self-appointed moral guardian of the little village of Hilary Magna. The village’s ineffectual vicar, whose real talents lie in beekeeping, is surprised to find her body in his cesspit.

Miss Tither had made a score of enemies locally, from unmasked philandering husbands and canoodling teenagers to the village atheist. Littlejohn – chosen because he understands rural communities – plunges into village life to find the victim. Comic rustics abound, notably the mutinous odd-job man Old Gormley. And there is no end of religious types, including the Rev Ethelred Claplady, a South Sea missionary and a methodist preacher.

Bellairs was apparently influenced by Simenon as much as by golden age authors. My chosen opening paragraph goes on…

There was a scuffling of wild things in the ditches as he passed. The church clock struck ten and the regulars of “The Bell” began to turn out. Good nights were bandied and foot-steps rang out. Crisp feet. Unsteady, staggering, shambling feet. The clink of hobnails, the pad-pad of rubbers. Here and there a torch twinkled. The Inspector retraced his steps past the few cottages clustered around the pub. Slits of dim light showed round the blinds of some; others were in darkness. A woman’s shrill laughter sounded. A child wailed in one of the houses. A drunkard’s angry shouts echoed; no doubt a protest at the reception he was receiving at home.

The Simenon touch is most obvious in the drab and hopeless character of Weekes, a farmer whose embittered wife is encouraging to drink himself to death – the faster the better. Meanwhile he is hopelessly in love with a much younger woman in the village. They form a dispiriting counterpoint to the generally lightly humorous populace. The writing is endearing – and Bellairs has quite a sweet trick of telling his characters’ futures as he goes.

An experienced mystery reader will smell a rat fairly early on, and the device used to hide the killer is straight out of the playbook. But all told, a pleasantly sunny book.

George Bellairs
Death of a Busybody
First published in the UK by John Gifford, 1942
This edition The British Library Publishing Division, 2016
Source: Publisher review copy (thanks BL!)
ISBN: 9780712356442
224 pages

Littlejohn and his assistant Cromwell also appear in Corpses in Enderby, which is available as an ebook free from ipso books. I’m halfway through and it’s another good one.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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8 Responses to George Bellairs: Death of a Busybody

  1. Still not read any of the BL reprints (I know, I know) – this sounds right up my crime strasse – thanks Rich 🙂

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  2. Isn’t Bellairs fun? I can’t believe I never came across him in all my years of reading Golden Age crime!!

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  3. Great write up, and I must say this a brilliant title for a book. Seems that Bellairs has a lovely turn of phrase.

    Haven’t read any of the BL prints either. Do you know what has been their process for choosing what to print?

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    • It’s a mixture of different ways. Sometimes people like Martin Edwards recommend books to be reprinted. Other times I think they come across works inside their own archives. And at one of the BL conferences they said that they once found a great train travel poster and then asked Martin to find a mystery novel which involved trains!

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      • Hah wow, pretty fluid and intuitive! That’s fascinating! Is there a certain style running through the series it as well? Other than I guess fairly cosy/GAD stuff?

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      • No there isn’t a certain style. You have those considered humdrums such as John Bude, Freeman Wills Crofts and Miles Burton, but then you have comic crime novels from Alan Melville (which are really good) and more thriller ones from J Jefferson Farjeon. Not as many reprinted by female authors though they did do three by Mavis Doriel Hay. There is also the classic The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Berkeley with a new ending by Martin Edwards. Definitely one impossible crime one by Anthony Wynne. I think the only general rule is that they tend to be pre 1960s, except for the sergeant cuff novels they reprinted last year. They also started out their series with a few reprints of Victorian mysteries. That’s all I can remember off the top of my head.

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      • Amazing, such an interesting thing they are doing. Lets hope it grows!

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  4. My kind of book, I think!

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