The 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.
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!)
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.